google-site-verification: googlecb803562c78427f3.html Everything you need to know about African masks | Kingdom of Africa



Posted by Florian Cheval on


As we know it, African masks are fundamentally part of African cultural identity. In this article we will see together the different styles of African masks, the artisans who make them, how they go about it and where these masks come from.


The training of the tribal artisan, which can last for many years, involves secret knowledge traditional sculpting techniques and their application to the social and religious objects that he creates. His craft may be taught to him in the workshop of a master carver, or sometimes these skills are passed down from father to son through several generations of his family.

Yoruba African mask artisans

The sculptor occupies a respected position in the African tribal society . His work consists of providing the different masks and sculptures used during ritual ceremonies . It is appreciated more for its spiritual than aesthetic qualities. Art without a "spiritual dimension", in the broadest sense of the term, never transcends the level of simple craftsmanship and is incapable of communicating those elevated emotions that arise from a deeper mystical inspiration.

The influence of African tribal art on Western art

When Western artisans and collectors first became interested in African art , they did not appreciate its social or spiritual function. African art was simply considered a naive genre with a strong visual impact.

African masks at the national museum

At the dawn of the 20th century, European designers were searching for new forms of expression that challenged, rather than merely illustrated, their rapidly evolving world of ideas and technology. Traditional techniques of realism and perspective seemed overworked and predictable. Their solution was to draw on images from other cultures and fuse them with European influences to refresh the tired traditions of Western art.

The new perspectives that these cultures offered opened many doors of development that led to the mutual enrichment of ideas and styles that constitute our current artistic world. The expressive power of African art was fundamental to this revolution and to the development of early modernist styles: cubism , fauvism And expressionism.

cubism - influence of African art on European art Today the finer qualities of African tribal art, like the qualities of good art from any continent, are more clearly understood. They have taken their true place in the art of humanity. Unfortunately, most of Traditional works of art are now designed for tourism. Although some of these objects are examples of craftsmanship, they lack the honest character that is generated by spiritual motivation. As opposed to a profit motive.


Traditional masks are used to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the forces of good and evil.

At the beginning of the 20th century, artists like Pablo Picasso And Andre Derain were inspired by the bold abstract designs they discovered in African tribal masks. They collected and used these artworks to influence their own styles of Cubism and Fauvism. In fact, they used the African culture to refresh the tired tradition of figure painting in Western art.

The Picasso Project - African Mask
As a result, we now tend to admire the bold design and abstract patterns of African masks through the eyes of Europeans. We appreciate them as objects displayed on the walls of museums , cut off from their traditional meaning and their magical power. However, this is not how they were designed to be seen.

African masks should be considered part of a ceremonial costume . They are used during religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the forces of good and evil in the community. They come alive, possessed by their spirit while performing the dance, and are enhanced by the music, color and atmosphere of the occasion.

African masks

Some combine human and animal characteristics to unite man with his natural environment. This connection with nature and the spirit world is of great importance to many tribal cultures and, throughout the ages, masks have always been used to express this relationship.


African masks are made from different materials: wood, bronze, brass, copper, ivory, terracotta and glazed pottery, raffia and textiles. They are often decorated with cowrie shells , colored beads, bones, animal skins and plant fibers.

The majority of masks and sculptures are made of wood for two reasons:

  • Trees are in abundance in the forest.
  • The sculptor believes that the tree has a spiritual soul and that its wood is the most natural home for the spirit of the mask.

African masks exhibition Before a tree is cut down, a sacrifice can be offered as a sign of respect to the spirit of the tree by asking their permission for the carving. His life is governed by the same natural and supernatural forces who inspire the artist and his community. This kind of ritual is common to many cultures that have a close spiritual connection with nature.

Wooden masks are often colored with natural dyes and pigments created from vegetables, plants, seeds, tree bark, soil and insects. They are sometimes splashed with sacrificial blood to increase their spiritual power .

The tools used to make a sculpture - traditionally the adze - also have their own spirit. When tools are passed down from generation to generation, they sometimes inherit the spirit and skills of their previous owners. Like the craftsman, his sculpture and the tree from which it comes, they are all part of this "unity" of nature, of this ecological vision which permeates all African tribal culture.


The bold pattern, whether painted or carved, is a powerful expressive element in African mask design.

  • Most patterns tend to be geometric and symmetrical and are used in a variety of ways.
  • Different geometric patterns are sometimes used to distinguish the male and female masks . Square and triangular checkerboard grids are often carved to decorate sections of a pattern. A variety of intricate braided hairstyles adorn the crown of the head.
  • Certain patterns are often used as a form of coded information. Parallel, zigzag, cruciform, curved and spiral lines, representing Scarification marks, or tattoos , are frequently used to adorn the facial planes of the mask. They may indicate social status or have magical or religious powers.
  • Intertwined crosses and geometric shapes are often seen as details on African masks. With the spread of the Muslim faith in Africa, some of these motifs show an influence from the decorative ideals of Islamic art .


First, let's look at the factors influencing the shape and style of a traditional mask. There are two main ones:

  • The traditional style that is dictated by the social and religious beliefs of the community.
  • The sculptor's individual vision and imagination.

Type of African masks - Dogon

Sculptors do not try to create a perfect representation of their subject. Although some realistic portraits are carved, others celebrate more abstract qualities such as nobility, beauty , courage, playfulness and humor. They create an idealized version, emphasizing the elements they consider most valuable:

  •  Composition - The symmetrical and formal arrangements of line, shape and appearance of figures and masks evoke integrity and dignity.
  •  Texture - The tribal artisan attaches great importance to the quality of execution, details and finish. Highly polished surfaces that represent young, healthy skin reflect the idea of ​​beauty and virtue, while rough, dirty surfaces suggest fear and evil. Many African sculptures depict the idealized human figure in the prime of life, brimming with health, strength and celebrating fertility or virility.

Type of African masks

  •  Shape - African masks take many forms. They can be oval, circular, rectangular, elongated, heart-shaped, animal or human, or any combination of these shapes.

Through this article we hope that you have learned enough about African masks. You are probably wondering, But where can you get some!? Well, discover exceptional masks by each African country on our partner site 👉 Akwab-art

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