An Overview of the Use of Masks in African Art and Religion

Topics: African Art

“African art is rooted in religion, this does not mean that Africans would be so presumptuous as to make images of the great creator-god. it is rather the case that they try to put the divine power, the eternal vital force which suffuses creation, into a form that befits it, thereby ensuring its favourable disposition and enlisting its aid and protection. African works of art – masks , sculptures and other ritual implements – are nothing less thatn media designed for a supernatural power.

they have to be fashioned with such beauty and precision, with such appropriateness, that they please the spirit and persuade it to take up its aboede in them. this it does in special ceremonies, which the priest combines with sacrifices and invocations; at the climax of the ritual the presence of the divine spirit makes itself felt to the worshipper with the greatest immediacy and intensity.”

From the above passage by Leuzinger we can tell that the art of Africa has played and still does play a very important role in the everyday lives of African peoples.

The Museum of Fine arts recently had a collection of African art on display. All of the art that was on display had a very specific purpose, wether it be as complex as a death mask or as simple as a container for jewelery or hairpins. This art was also used for ancestor worship or in yam purifying ceremonies and even in circumcision initiations. All of the artwork was hand crafted and the observer can tell that the artisian went to great lengths to ensure that his mask, or his cup would please the gods that he was making it for.

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It is clear that the African artisians believes that their ancestors will live on in the art that the create

The mask is a very important part of African life. Used in countless ceremonies it might be the most important piece of artwork that one can make. Generally the mask bears the features of the ancestor figure, which might explain the pronounced facial features that were present on the masks at the Museum. But it’s not just a mask, the mask bearer symbolizes the protective power of the tribes’ secret society. Whenever the villiage is in danger the people call upon this secret society for help. The masks give the bearer the strength and courage to fight the evil spirits that are plaging the village.

All pieces of African art, and also many utensils, are decorated with symbols and signs of the tutelary powers, so that the owner is constantly linked to the vital force, this is why in Africa there exists such a wealth of beautifully decorated implements: ceremonial staffs, sceptres and thrones, harps and drums, as well as cups, bowls, spoons and pulley-holders for looms.

But how were these works created? How does one know what a sacred object is meant to look like? Unlike the Greeks, who created gods in their own image, the classic African artisian purposfully does not use the naturalistic image. By changing the natural features he attempts to create an entirely new form, as unreal as possible. This is done to ensure that the artists own ideas of power are not incorporated into that work. For example, a figure suggesting a great deal of spiritual power is expressed by a large head with a bulging forehead. Also prestige and power, by the attributes of mighty animals. The artist is well aquainted with the whole range of means of expression. For example jagged lines, notches, edges, and bold edges suggest energy or even the shadows of the deep ocean. Once the work is finished it must pass the test of the tribe. If the tribe approves of the work it is accecpted and passed down from generation to generation. This is how a style retains its specific character for decades.

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An Overview of the Use of Masks in African Art and Religion. (2021, Dec 23). Retrieved from

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