Mask typology

Work in Progress

mask typology

How different types of masks are worn. Sowei society helmet mask, Mende (top left), face mask, Dan (top right), egungun headdress, Yoruba (bottom left), gelede helmet crest mask, Yoruba (bottom right). Illustration by John Gordon Swogger.


With one known exception, masks in Africa are largely made and danced by men. Masks are also decorated with paint, additional carvings and interesting materials such as hair and ceramic fragments.

The masks we have become familiar with are those carved from wood. These are the items commonly viewed by the West in museums and galleries, auction houses, even car boot sales.

It is these masks that influenced the avant-garde artists of early 19th century Europe. At the time, Europeans were not really interested in who made them or for what reason. They were more concerned about what the masks expressed.

Of course, masks do not come in one shape or form. There is so much variety in carving styles that these details help the observer to identify their place of origin, their function and on rare occasions, who made them.

There are different ways in which masks can be worn.


Mask types

Helmet: these are carved out of a single trunk of wood and hollowed out to fit over the wearer’s helmet. Examples are made by the Mende of Sierra Leone and the Suku of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

An example of this in RAMM’s collection comes from the Mende. Within Mende society exists the only known secret society run by and for women; called the Sande Society.

Sande society mask (accession number 51/1958/2a)

Sande society mask (accession number 51/1958/2a)














Face mask: this type carved in wood is prevalent in western and central regions of the continent. It’s likely to be the commonest mask type found in all continents. Again, shaped from a single piece of wood and decorated with pigment and grass, they are designed to be worn in front of the face.

An example from RAMM’s collection was acquired in 1998 and comes from the Ibibio of the Cross River region, SE Nigeria. This Idiok Ekpo face mask has a hinged jaw.

Idiok Ekpo face mask, Ibibio, Cross River region, SE Nigeria

Idiok Ekpo face mask, Ibibio, Cross River region, SE Nigeria (accession number 37/1998, height 267mm)

It represents the spiti of someone who has died in socially acceptable ways or they violated social codes and laws. This type of mask is used by the community to deal with sensitive issues such as negative behaviour in society.