What are masks?

Masks - the faces of Africa?

A mask is something which conceals and creates identity. Historically, masks have been used by many cultures, in fact, in the modern world masking traditions are found on every continent.

Africa is a major centre of mask production, particularly in the western and central regions of the continent. Masks have become a symbol for African culture. It is possible that masking traditions existed in other parts of Africa but evidence for this is lacking. It could be that older traditions utilised fragile organic materials which haven’t survived the archaeological record or the voyages to Britain.

A mask is worn to entertain, inform, venerate, even conceal – some masks are used in secret. Masks are worn for the benefit of the community. They assist in bringing good health or they deter evil forces.

Masking is also about the transformation of the wearer. So what does that mean?

Are masks the real faces of Africa? What is their purpose? What do they mean? What materials are they made from? When are they used? How has colonialism impacted on this old tradition?

This section focuses on the masks held in this museum collection. The majority of masks have a Yoruba origin (SW Nigeria). However, other examples featured here include Dan, Mande, Dogon of western Africa and the Vili and Kuba of central Africa. Visitors can see a summary of all of our African masks here.