Masks of the World: Africa

Hi Parents! Today we are going to look at a small sample of African masks. This only scrapes the surface of the rich variety of masks and cultures from this continent. Please be sure to check out the links at the bottom if you want to explore further. I’ve included video links, a banana fritter recipe, mask craft and link to a dance tutorial.

Burkina Faso Nwantantay Mask 

African masks are usually shaped after a human face or some animal’s muzzle, but often represented in an abstract form. The inherent lack of realism in African masks (and African art in general) is justified by the fact that most African cultures clearly distinguish the essence of a subject from its looks, the former, rather than the latter, being the actual subject of artistic representation.  An extreme example is given by Nwantantay masks of the Bwa people (Burkina Faso) that represent the flying spirits of the forest; since these spirits are deemed to be invisible, the corresponding masks are shaped after abstract, purely geometrical forms. (Source: Wikipedia)

These masks are are traditionally used in funeral ceremonies. They also dance at agricultural festivities to ensure the proper progression of the seasons, and at initiation rituals to help introduce young men and women to the secrets and responsibilities of adulthood and are intended to make natural spirits visible to the community. The wearer performs a complex dance designed to imitate the movements of the creature represented by the mask. These dances in turn tell the story of the spirit represented in its assumed animal form. (Source: 

Watch this really interesting video with explanation of the masks and description of the demonstration of the nwantantay performance:

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Benin Ivory Mask

Women’s faces is a common theme of African Masks. At only about 9 inches high, the Queen Mother Pendant from the Edo people of Benin is one of the most famous African masks. It is from the 16th century and is one of a pair of nearly identical masks: one at the Met Museum in New York and the other in London at the British Museum. It is made of ivory and represents the king ObaEsigie’s mother Idia. The mask is a sensitive, idealized portrait, depicting its subject with softly modeled features, bearing inlaid metal and carved scarification marks on the forehead, and wearing bands of coral beads below the chin. In the openwork tiara and collar are carved stylized mudfish and the bearded faces of Portuguese. Because they live both on land and in the water, mudfish represent the king’s dual nature as human and divine. Having come from across the seas, the Portuguese were considered denizens of the spirit realm who brought wealth and power to the oba. (Metropolitan Museum of Art) For more info including Audio descriptions:

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(Image Source:

Cöte D’Ivoire Djela Mask

Zaouli is a traditional dance of the Guro people of central Ivory Coast. The Zaouli mask, used in the dance, was created in the 1950s, reportedly inspired by a girl named “Djela Lou Zaouli”[1] (meaning “Zaouli, daughter of Djela”). However, stories on the origins of the mask are varied, and each mask can have its own symbolic history. Each Guro village has a local Zaouli dancer (always male), performing during funerals and celebrations.The dance is believed to increase the productivity of a village that it is performed in, and is seen as tool of unity for the Guro community, and by extension the whole country. (Source: Wikipedia) 

You really need to watch this dance which is amazing for stamina alone:


Congolese and Ivory Coast Animal Composition Masks

Animals are very often depicted in African masks. A common variation on the animal-mask theme is the composition of several distinct animal traits in a single mask, sometimes along with human traits. Merging distinct animal traits together is sometimes a means to represent unusual, exceptional virtue or high status. For example, the Poro secret societies of the Senufo people of the Ivory Coast have masks that celebrate the exceptional power of the society by merging three different “danger” symbols: antelope horns, crocodile teeth, and warthog fangs.[10] Another well-known example is that of kifwebe masks of the Songye people (Congo basin), that represent animals in a symbolic way: the stripes of a zebra (or okapi), the teeth of a crocodile, the eyes of a chameleon, the mouth of an aardvark, the crest of a rooster, the feathers of an owl and more.

Ancestor Masks: DR Congo

As the veneration of defunct ancestors is a fundamental element of most African traditional cultures, it is not surprising that the dead is also a common subject for masks. Masks referring to dead ancestors are most often shaped after a human skull. These masks are used in ceremonies for fertility underproduction and the renewal of life. 

A special class of ancestor masks are those related to notable, historical or legendary people. The mwaash ambooy mask of the Kuba people (DR Congo), for example, represents the legendary founder of the Kuba Kingdom, Woot, the founding hero from whom the Kuba trace their descent, and is worn only by the king (nyim) or by local chiefs. Among the Kuba, masks are thought to be reflections of nature-spirits (mingesh) that act as intermediaries between the Supreme Being (Nyeem) and the world of mortals. There are more than twenty different types of masks that function within the men’s initiation society. The Nyeem mask is usually made of leopard skin, while those of chiefs are made of antelope skin. The face of this mask is probably antelope skin painted with a design to look like leopard’s fur. The nose and ears are carved of wood, and the white beard of fur from the chest of a sheep represents the beard of an old man.

Here is a really nice (3 min) video that shows the Kuba royal mask ceremony:


(Source: Brooklyn Museum)

Sierra Leone Sowei Wood and Metal Helmet Mask

As a representation of the guardian spirit of Sande — a powerful pan-ethnic women’s association responsible for education and moral development — the work alludes to an idealized female beauty. Worn at performances to celebrate the completion of the young initiates’ training period, these masks are finely carved to convey admired feminine features: an elaborate coiffure, a smooth broad forehead, narrowly slit eyes, a small composed mouth, and a sensuously ringed neck. The presence of a beard — a symbol synonymous with the wisdom men achieve with age and experience — may suggest that through Sande women attain the same amount of knowledge as men. In Humui, a medicine society for men and women, this type of helmet mask has been used to address curative needs, especially mental illness. The four projecting animal horn amulets that rise from the perimeter may be a reference to the horns filled with protective medicinal ingredients worn by Humui members. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Check out this enchanting video here showing this Sowei mask and ceremony: (video commissioned by the British Museum):

(Source: Brooklyn Museum)

There are so many more cultures and masks of Africa to discover. Here are some web links to explore further:

Smithsonian National Museum of African Arts: Go to Navigation Tools and search Objects for Masks, you will get over 250 results sorted by type with descriptions: 

Cleveland Museum of Art

They have a great online activity for grades 2-5: Learn why African artists use animals as points of reference in mask making and how masks are used in ceremonies. Students compare the differences and similarities between African and American masks in terms of materials, roles in life, and seasonal cycles. You can just download the PDF.

Brooklyn Museum

Disguise: Masks and Global African Art connects the work of twenty-five contemporary artists with historical African masquerade, using play and provocation to invite viewers to think critically about their world and their place within it. By putting on a mask and becoming someone else, artists reveal hidden realities about society, including those of power, class, and gender, to suggest possibilities for the future.#disguisebkm

PBS Learning Media

African Masks 6 and a half minute video (Grades K-8) Artist Maude Alexander shows some of the African masks in her collection and talks about how African masks are more than aesthetic artifacts. They are functional implements of the many cultures of the African continent. Then, she takes students to Kente International, a store in Louisville, Kentucky that sells art and clothing from Africa, including an extensive collection of masks. This site includes Discussion questions Background Reading, and an activity suggestion page to download under Support Materials:

She also has an 8 and a half minute video with support materials about African Ancestor Masks here:

How are they Made?

A video on how African wooden masks are made:


If you were to represent yourself as an animal or a group of animals which one(s) would you choose?

Do you feel like there is a Spirit of the place that you live or come from? If so, how would you represent it in an image or a mask? 

Can you think of something that is invisible that you you could draw in a way that it would then be visible to others?


Challenge: Can you try to dance as long and as fast as the Zaouli? (See the video link above)

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DANCE: Check out this awesome Joy of Togetherness African/Hip Hop dance tutorial by kids for kids, Masaka Kids from Uganda:

The Masaka Kids Africana is composed of African children, from the age of 2 and up. Many have lost one or both parents through the devastation of war, famine and disease. They represent all the children of a continent and they demonstrate the potential of African children to become strong leaders for a better future in their land. 

This is what it’s supposed to look like in the end:


African Mask Art Project for kids using paper maché, paints and raffia:

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Here is a recipe for vegan Sierra Leone Banana Fritters from One Green Planet:


Light and fluffy, but also gluten-free, the taste and texture of these fritters is like banana pancakes combined with doughnuts. They’re also ready in just 20 minutes, from start to finish, so they’re the perfect breakfast for your days off where you want to cook yourself breakfast, but don’t want to spend your entire morning in the kitchen.


  • 4 bananas, ripe
  • 1 cup rice flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped or 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup hot water
  • Oil, for deep-frying
  • Powdered sugar, to garnish


  • In a mixing bowl, mash the bananas, vanilla, and sugar until reaching a smooth consistency.
  • Gradually add the rice flour and then hot water while mixing in the food processor bowl. The mixture should be moist but not liquid.
  • Let cool 20 minutes.
  • Heat oil in a non-stick pan.
  • Drop spoonfuls of the batter into the oil. Pay attention to leave enough space between each fritter and fry on both sides until browned.
  • Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

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