The history of African masks: origin and meaning

When it comes to African art, many immediately think of tribal masks. True cultural symbols of Africa, they are declined in countless models. Very expressive and multifaceted, African masks are fascinating and attractive. They also have their place in an ethnic or exotic themed decoration. Here's what you need to know about them.

History of African masks

More than just a sculpture, African masks have a special cultural significance . Moreover, many African tribes located in several countries have their own masks, with easily identifiable characteristics. However, all associate it indissolubly with knowledge and power.

As the name suggests, masks are meant to mask. Concretely, they hide the identity of the wearer in order to allow him to personify a spirit, a god or some supernatural force.

In the majority of African cultures, masks were originally created to be worn during certain ceremonies and rituals. These ceremonies can also be shows illustrating specific mythologies. It can be a struggle between good and evil, the anguish of death, or the mystery of origins. The performances in question take place during crucial moments in the life of the community: mourning, marriage, ritual of passage to adult life...

In addition, African masks are also considered sacred objects. In many African societies, they are perceived as a mediator between the world of the dead and the world of the living. The dancer who wears it during the ritual enters a deep trance, and comes into contact with ancestors.

The dancer in question brings the messages of wisdom of the ancestors, and these are interpreted by a sage. Indeed, the messages are usually screams or grunts difficult to interpret. It should also be noted that during such rituals, masks are never worn alone, but accompanied by a costume.

Masques dans un marché au Cameroun

Masks with multiple functions

African masks stand out for their very wide declination according to the tribes. They also perform various functions and are used in different ways depending on the expected results.

The African mask represents an invisible reality

During religious rituals, masks have the function of representing the supernatural. It is for this reason that they are never really realistic about the features they wear. An African mask may have some features of a human face, but there are always other non-human elements inspired by nature, or by the animal world.

A function of protection against the forces of evil

In popular belief, African masks are often associated with witchcraft. Yet, on the contrary, the members of a tribe use them primarily to protect themselves from the forces of evil. They are also assigned a function of protection against diseases and other scourges, while ensuring the safety of the population.

A multifunctional tool useful in several areas

Africans use masks in 4 main spheres:

  • During cultural events;
  • During rites related to birth;
  • During rites relating to death;
  • During initiation ceremonies.

They can also be used in the economic field to ensure the smooth running of the harvest or to appease the gods in case of climatic hazards.

Despite the multiplicity of functions attributed to it, the main function of the African mask remains that of maintaining order within the community, and this, in all areas. Indeed, as they embody the gods, they are considered the depositories of authority.

Gros plan sur quelques masques africains authentiques

A very popular decorative item

Over time, encouraged by the phenomenon of globalization, the use of African masks has evolved. Without losing their cultural vocation, they have also become elements of home decoration very appreciated in Africa, but also on other continents. Indeed, once hung on the walls, they contribute to creating a highly appreciated cosmopolitan style of decoration as evidenced by the rise of the ethnic trend.

How are African masks designed?

The design of African masks is done in a traditional way. They are entirely handmade. The carving is done on wood by skilled craftsmen.

In some African tribes, the choice of wood to use is essential. Some trees considered to have harmful energies should not be used. Only woods that do not weaken the power of the carved image are allowed.

The sculpture of an African mask requires real know-how in order to perpetuate the beliefs of the tribe. Once sculpted, the mask can be painted and motifs (animals, mythological heroes, moral values...) can be engraved.

Possible variations of African masks

African masks come in many models according to several criteria.

The type of representation

The mask can reproduce either the features of a human face, or reproduce the face of an animal, or a half-human, half-animal composite face. It can also combine the characteristics of several animals. In some cases, the mask may represent a completely abstract face.

The colors used

These decorative objects are available in various colors. You can opt for monochrome models (usually black or brown) for a more sober decoration. Multicolored masks, on the other hand, bring good mood everywhere in your home.


The height of African masks usually varies from 10 cm to about 1 m. You therefore have a wide choice depending on the available wall surface you have to hang them.

Animals and grounds

Several types of animals, patterns and symbols can be drawn or engraved on the decorative African mask. You can choose between turtles, snakes, fish, birds, giraffes, rhinos or flowers, or tribal motifs.

As you will have understood, the choice is wide, you just have to determine what you want and the budget you have.

The price of an African mask varies greatly depending on the country of origin, the wood used, and the complexity of the carving work.

The time of manufacture can also significantly influence the price, but be aware that antique masks can be considered heritage objects and their trade is therefore regulated.

Given these elements, the price of an African mask starts at around 10 € for the most affordable models, and can exceed 1000 € for rare models.

How to use African masks in decoration?

To compose the decoration of a place with African masks, it is first necessary to choose the location.

Indoors, they can be arranged on a clearly visible section of wall. For the visual effect to be successful, it will be necessary to play on the color contrasts. If your African mask is light in color, hang it on a wall in dark tones. Conversely, a dark-colored African mask will need to be hung on a light wall. If you have several African masks of various colors, both light and dark, then you can bet on originality by placing them on a wall painted in a bright color as shown in the photo below. Take the opportunity to compose a geometric shape or an original pattern that captures the eye.

When an African mask is placed outdoors, think about protect it from the sun and rain so that the wood retains its strength and original appearance. It will therefore be necessary to apply a water-repellent product (possibly including an anti-UV treatment to avoid the phenomenon of discoloration) as a layer of stain. This treatment should be renewed every 1 to 2 years if necessary.

Exemple de décoration murale avec des masques africains

You now have essential information about African masks, their history and meaning, but also how to use them for decoration.

We offer below a selection of masks from the Coco Papaya range, all handmade by artisans with whom we work in compliance with the rules of fair trade. Perhaps they will give you the inspiration to decorate one of the rooms in your home?

If you want to contribute to this article, or ask a question, do not hesitate to do so by posting a comment!