Basic Forms of African Tribal Masks
In Africa we have a wide variety of masks from different tribes and cultures. To bring some clarity and understanding it is helpful to classify them into roughly 8 basic types.
Headdress: (A good example would be one from the Ekhoi tribe now classified as part of Elagham in Nigeria see image to the left) The artists carve cephalomorphic (head morph) and zoomorphic (animal or Gods of animals) masks. The headdress and masks are covered with antelope skin this is one of the main characteristics associated with this Ekhoi tribe. The basket at the base is hand weaved from cane and is the shape of the top portion of the head. The bearer of the mask wears a costume that is normally made of plant fiber and or raffia and covers the top and trunk of the body.
Face mask: this is the most common type found throughout Africa (see sample image to the right from the Chokwe tribe). The mask covers the face and has holes along the side to which a costome can be attached. Before the wearer dons the costume his assistants will rub his/her body with a covering of natural oil, this serve as protection against evil spirits. The mask is then placed over the face and attached to the head opening of the costume. Thereafter a skirt made of vegetable fibers is attached around the waist. In some instances the entire body is covered with fiber or raffia. View the catalog here and the history of the Chokwe here
Coon Mask: Origin South Africa. This type of mask is hand painted and serves as a disguise and comical face from way back when emancipation of slaves was proclaimed. (see Slaves at the Cape). The newfound freedom of slaves led to the biggest celebrations at the time. They came out in grand style; along with song and dance accompanied by traditional music. Colonial masters detested the celebrations calling it "barbaric". The comical smiling disguise allowed slaves to dance right in the face of colonial masters singing at the top of his voice almost in a way as to vent all the pent up frustrations without being identified, hence no punishment. For three hundred years and more against all the odds this vibrant and unique coon carnival still live on in the heart of Cape Town.
Horizontal plank mask: Bwa tribe from Burkino Faso (see sample image to the right). These types of masks have a circular face and large eyes and are worn on top of the head and it resembles an owl or a bird in flight. The geometric patterns are common on the masks from the Bwa tribe. The underside is carved to the shape of the head. View the mask catalog here.
Body or Belly Mask (see image to the left) from the Makonde tribe, Southeastern Tanzania. Carved from a solid tree trunk the hollow fits to the front of the body. The belly mask have small holes on the side to allow for attaching the mask to the body or to attach a costume. The mask is normally part of the costume of a Ndimu masker and are worn by a male masquerader together with a matching face mask. Tradionally the dance are performed by spiritual leaders to celebrate initiation rites. The dance celebrates the initiation of young women into adulthood and to ensure the fertility of the young make and females within the tribe.
Helmet Masks are carved from a solid piece of tree trunk, it is hollowed to fit over the head and with carved out openings for the eyes, mouth and nose. This type of mask is commonly found among the Sande - Liberia and the Mende - Sierra Leone.
Mask, masque, masker maschera, mascara: A cover or disguise as for the features can be associated with a play or dramatic performance where the actors are masked and represent allegorical or mythological subjects. A masquerade. A artistic covering for the face. To put on a mask, assume a disguise.