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African Masks and Masquerades

Most African masks are made of wood.
The intricate details on this Lwena dance mask were carved with a small knife.
zoom The intricate details on this Lwena dance mask were carved with a small knife.


An artist trained in woodcarving makes the mask. During an apprenticeship, the artist learns about the particular styles of masks that are important to his community. A mask carver is always male and usually holds an important status among his people.

A mask is often made from a single piece of wood. The artist uses an axe-like tool called an adze to create the features on the mask. Fine details are carved on the mask using a knife. To darken or add color to the wood, an artist may soak the mask in mud, burn it, rub it with oil, or paint it with natural pigments or manufactured wood stains. In addition to wood, masks can be made with other materials including beads, bells, feathers, metal, fur, raffia, and shells.

An artist will often make the mask in private. After the artist completes the mask, an elder will perform a ceremony to allow a spirit to inhabit the mask and give it power. Likewise, when a mask is no longer in use the elder performs a ceremony to remove its power.

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1. This wood mask from the Bushoong people is decorated with cowrie shells, beads, pigments, plant fibers, and fabric.
2. The facial features on this Dan mask are abstract and geometrical. The artist darkened the wood's natural color.
3. This elephant mask from the Kuosi society is an example of a mask not made from wood. The cloth hood and panels are decorated with beads and raffia.


April 2004