The Spiritual History of the African Mask


March 23rd, 2008

The creation and history of the African Mask is one steeped in meaning and tradition. The art of carving the African mask was often taught to young men who were apprenticed to master carvers. In other cases, the art of making masks and sculptures to be used in spiritual ceremonies was passed down in families from one generation to the next.

Rich with symbolic meaning, the African mask was treasured for its spiritual quality, as opposed to its aesthetic appearance. People living in different parts of African would produce art unique to their own culture. Here are some fascinating examples:

The Goma Mask

The Goma African mask was produced by people living near Lake Tanganyika, which is located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This style of mask is elongated, with a dome at the top of the face. This style of mask also features a pattern of shapes carved into the forehead and face.

The Punu Mask

This style of African mask captures what is considered a beautiful female face by Gabon’s Punu tribe. This style features hair pulled up high on top of the head, with eyes carved in a shape that reminds one of an Asian woman. A Punu mask is sometimes painted white to represent the spirits of long-dead ancestors.

The Ligbi Mask

This celebratory African mask comes from the Ivory Coast. It features an elongated shape with wings on the side. The mouth is carved in the shape of a rectangle. Ligbi masks are used as part of Islamic holiday celebrations.

The Baule Mask

The Baule people carve African masks to be worn while dancing during harvest festivals. The mask’s round shape is a reminder of the Sun, the source of all life. These people respect the tremendous power possessed by the water buffalo which is represented by the horns carved into the top of the mask.

The remarkable thing about the African mask is that each culture has created a unique version to represent the spirit of its tribe. Today westerners appreciate the African Mask for its history, artistry, and ability to represent the owners unique taste and appreciate of diverse cultures.

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