Printer Friendly Version

African Masks and Masquerades

Masks come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and styles.
This mask used by the Pende people depicts the female antelope Mbambi.
zoom This mask used by the Pende people depicts the female antelope Mbambi.


Masks can be grouped into three main forms: face masks, helmet masks, and headresses. The face mask is the most common form and usually curves over the masker's face, stopping right before the ears. Other face masks, often described as plank masks, are completely flat. A helmet mask covers the entire head and sits on the shoulders of the masker. The third form of masks, the headdress, rests on top of the masker's head. To help keep the masker's identity disguised, a costume made of raffia or grass is attached to a headdress to cover his or her face.

Some masks take the shape of humans. These masks often have stylized features to represent ideal beauty and strength. Other masks take the form of powerful animals that are important to the community, such as an elephant, antelope, or hawk. Sometimes masks combine attributes from different animals or even combine human and animal features. When these features are brought together on a mask, the powers of each also are combined.

Masks come in a variety of sizes. Sometimes they are very small, just large enough to cover the masker's face. Other times, they are extremely large or tall. For example, the Bwa mask below is over six feet tall! The masker must be strong to maintain his balance while wearing such a mask.

spacer related images 1.  + 2.  + 3.  + bracket spacer
1. This Luba dance mask is worn over the head like a helmet.
2. This Hemba mask has half-human, half-chimpanzee features and was used at funerals to symbolize death.
3. Bwa plank masks are performed at funerals, initiation ceremonies, and agricultural festivals.


April 2004