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Types of African Masks

In order to bring some sort of order into the variety of African masks, it is perhaps helpful to classify them in terms of a number of basic types. At this point only their physical characteristics will be taken as distinguishing traits. Based on the form of the main part of the mask, six types may be distinguished:

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1. Face masks - Possibly the most common type, occur almost everywhere in Africa where masks are used.

2. Helmet masks - Carved out of a section of tree trunk and hollowed to fit over the wearer's entire head. In some regions - as with the Mende in Sierra Leone and the Suku in the Democratic Rep

3. Helmet crests - This type differs from the helmet mask in that it does not cover the wearer's entire head, but is worn like a cap, leaving the face free. Helmet crests are a type commonly used by the Kwifon association in the Grasslands of Cameroon and by the Gelede Association of Yoruba, in southern Nigeria.

4. Cap crests or forehead masks - Like the face mask, this type consists only of a half-face. But it is worm horizontally, stabilized on the wearer's head by a circular ridge. In the case of anthropomorphic varieties (such as those of the Cameroon Grasslands), the wearer bends forward and lowers his head to direct the mask's gaze towards the spectators. In the case of zoomorphic forehead and helmet crests, this stopping posture is unnecessary. Both this and the previously mentioned form leave the wearer's face free; to complete the masquerade, his face is concealed with a piece of cloth, a translucent veil, or some similar material.

5. Headdress masks - These consist of representations of human or animal heads or figures, rising above a small base that rest on top of the wearer's head. Examples are found in the art of various ethnic groups in the area of the Cross River in Nigeria, and among the Bamana in Mali.

6. Shoulder masks - These are large, very heavy busts designed to rest on the wearer's shoulder's, with a small opening or peepholes to see through. In literature, the characteristic mask form of the Waja (Nigeria) and the Baga (Guinea) is often described as a shoulder mask. This may involve a misunderstanding, because the hollow of these masks in not large enough to receive the dancer's upper body. They probably represent a special variety of headdress mask.

Special Types of African Masks

A number of special forms were developed by modifying details of and making additions to the basic types mentioned. Examples are the vertically or laterally extended plank masks, which exist in numerous local variants. These include the types described by Annemarie SchweegerHefel as steele and sword masks, in use among the Kurumba/Nyonyosi in Burkina Faso. Other special variants are characterized by proliferation, such as the multi-story mask or that with long lateral extensions. Still others are gigantic in size and made of composite materials or are designed to be worn by several persons at once.
Occasionally masks are simply painted designs. Among the Ubi (Ivory Coast), the colorful patterns applied to the face of young women in preparation for a ritual dance probably represent an imitation of certain face masks common in the region.


For the sake of completeness, mention should be made of the quite frequent use of mask forms as ornament on vessels, house walls, doors, door-posts, the bows or sterns of boats, shields, knives, drums, chairs, headrests, staffs, bracelets, necklaces, and rings. Miniature masks, or maskettes, of wood, bone, ivory, or metal, worn as necklace pendants, as brooches, on a belt or at the elbow, also serve as amulets or as signs of successfully completed initiation. Their forms and characteristic details are similar to those of the other masks of the region in questions.

How to Wear an African Mask

As far as the mode of wearing is concerned, face masks are tied with bands either directly to the head or are held in place by a scarf or a raffia wig. All have holes drilled in the edge for the purpose of securing them. Some masks are fitted on the back, or inside, with a horizontal stick which the wearer grips between his teeth. The members of the Bwami association among the Lega (northeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo) employ their face masks in unusual ways. Expressive of a complex symbolism, the masks are worn not only on the face but at the temples, on the back of the head, on the upper arm, and on the knee - even held in the hand, laid on the ground, or suspended on the special framework. Among the highland Bangwa of Cameroon, the members of the night association carry their helmet masks on their shoulders rather than wearing them, perhaps due to the dangerous forces associated with them, against which not even associated members are immune. The shoulder masks of the Limba in Sierra Lione, which are made of copper plates and worn during the funeral of a chief, are worn in a similar manner. The multiple-wearer mask which is an especially striking element of the procession of initiates among the Senufo (Ivory Coast), has only one head, though the creature's body, fashioned of mats and wooden slats, is generally carried by two people. A similar construction is found in many of the animal masks used in memorial services by the Chipeta in Malawi and by the Chewa in Zambia.


Different Styles of African Masks

The themes and motifs employed along or in the combination in African masks range from more or less clearly recognizable human features or busts (male, female, but only very rarely hermaphroditic) to the heads of animals monkey, crocodile, fish, birds, etc.). There are also combinations of the two including horned humans and hybrid creatures with human and animal features or with traits typical of various animal species. Within all of these thematic groupings, especially characteristic traits can appear: the heart-shaped face, the double or so-called Janus face, multiple heads, multiple-figure compositions, such as birds or human heads surmounting the mask, human figures on an animal's head, or a leather covering.

The morphological characteristics listed above do not suffice, by themselves, to permit a definition of styles, or rather, stylistic groupings. These emerge from a comparison of individual objects which evince similarities close enough to justify speaking of a relative continuity of form or combination of forms. With the necessary caution, historical reality may be ascribed to these groupings, for the complexes of features they share in common reflect formal traditions - conventions, in other words, which were followed by generations of artists in a particular region and which to some extent were even binding.

One key to stylistic definition is the position a sculpture occupies within a range extending from figurative at the one extreme toward abstract at the other. Though completely abstract masks are rare, in some cases the tendency toward abstraction is very marked, as in the masks of the Dogon and Igbo. A close scrutiny of seemingly unimportant details can also be typologically revealing. The contour of a mask, the proportions of the features, the use of convex or concave surfaces, the shape of the eyes and eyebrows, nose and nostrils, mouth and corners of the mouth, of ears, teeth, hairdo, scarification patterns, and finally painting - all are useful aids to stylistic classification.


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