West African Masks; Tribal Identification

African Chokwe Helmet Mask 12"

While anthropologists continue to discover exciting pieces of the historical puzzle of Africa, many indigenous peoples continue to leave their own historical markers–African masks, African sculpture and African art.

Although some African art is created for widespread traditional purposes (circumcision, war, marriage, etc.), the majority of West African masks are centered around tribal identity.  Often, a face mask’s sole purpose is to mark the identity of the bearer’s particular tribe.  As African mask “usage” continues to decline–and tribal intermarriages blur ethnic lines–more masks are being crafted as decorative preservations of heritage and tribal identification than as ceremonial or functional items.

Tribes such as the Mandinka, Fula (Fulani), Jola and Wolof (Senegal/Gambia) carve particular features into their own ethnic masks.  Fula (Fulani) masks, for example, often include animals atop a figure to celebrate the tribe’s history of gentle treatment of animals.  Fula masks are also one of the few types consistently seen in male/female pairs. Mandinka masks, on the other hand, often include bearded or ear-pierced warrior-like figures and sometimes are found in sets of seven, to represent the different roles of a Mandinka tribesman each day of the week.

Facial features of a mask can determine geographical region or tribal identity.  The narrowness of a face, a round shape, or bulging forehead are all markers of identity and attributes found among specific African tribes.  For instance, Baule tribal masks will almost always have arched eyebrows and closed eyes.

Today, modern African craftsmen also study the features of other tribes, increasing their craft skills to include more distant tribes and offer tourists to their country a range of West African masks.  With a large percentage of African masks now being made with the intention of being sold (rather than being used), some of the particular features associated with their usage stand on the brink of being lost.  Mask collectors, sellers and carvers alike will need to continue passing down cultural information and techniques to future African mask apprentices so that these important mask details will continue to be preserved.

Mask-Making Tribes of West Africa

Below is a list including many of the mask-making tribes of West Africa and their current (or most prominent) geographical regions.  Please note that many tribes have alternative names/spellings within different areas of Africa, and that not every West African tribe is listed here.

Akan – Ghana
Aku – Sierra Leone
Bakota (Kota) – Gabon
Bambara (Bamana) – Mali
Bariba – Benin, Nigeria
Bobo (Bwe) – Burkina Faso, Mali
BauleCote d’Ivoire
Chamba – Nigeria
Dendi – Benin
Dogon – Mali, Burkina Faso
Fang – Equatorial Guinea, Gabon
Fanti (Fante) – Ghana
Fon – Benin, Togo
Mende – Sierra Leone
Fulani (Fula, Peul) – Widespread, West Africa
Gaun – Ghana
Ibo (Igbo) – Nigeria
Jola (Jolla, Diola) – The Gambia, Senegal
Kpelle – Guinea, Liberia
Kissi – Guinea
Mandinka (Mandingo, Malinke) – The Gambia, Senegal, Guinea-Bissau
Mel – Sierra Leone, Liberia
Serahule – The Gambia
Serer – Senegal, The Gambia
Senufo, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali
Susu (soussou) – Guinea, Sierra Leone
Tuareg – Mali
Tukulor – Senegal, Mali
Wolof (Jolof, Fanafa) – Senegal, The Gambia
Yoruba – Benin, Nigeria

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