African Masquerades: The Spirits Behind The Masks

Masks are a part of African art that transcends the ages and reflects the culture and spirituality of Africa. African masks can help to bridge a liminal gap by allowing transition. Henry John Drewal’s Gelede Masquerade article, Imagery and Motif (Masks and Other Sacred Traditions), reveals Yoruba motifs and motifs that are embodied in masks and a variety of sacred traditions. The article goes into great detail to express the importance and tribute paid to “The Great Mothers” or women of exceptional power. The motifs surrounding the masks as an art form are limitless, and they can be used to guide “The Children” in becoming community members who respect the Mothers’ wisdom. The masks no longer represent Orishas (ancestors), or are a representation for a specific religious or ceremonial affair. Instead, they can be used to benefit the entire community. Sande is an African secret society that assists young girls on their journey to becoming confident and mature women. Ruth B. Phillips describes in her essay, Masking In Mende Sande Social Life, how masquerades help these groups maintain their “essential mysteries” without losing the “strong medicine”. They also act as a medium of communication between members of the Sande Mende community and other people in the community. Masks are also a powerful symbol of transitions and changes that affect the community. African masks serve a variety of purposes, not just religious ones. The masks can be used as a way to teach children about culture, help them take on a social role, or honor the deceased.

In African culture, the mask is a key element in shows that are created to help children grow into adults. African masquerades have a dynamic component where the person wearing the mask becomes the spirit of the mask. In the concept of masquerades, the Africans can communicate with Orishas by removing their identity. Masks have a spiritual significance, and they are also essential to a rites of passage. Sande, a secret society from Sierra Leone, is responsible for teaching young women practical skills to become womanly. Sande’s initiation involves three phases: separation from the native community, transition, and then reintegration. The sowei dancer (ndoli jowei) will wear a mask to represent the stages of womanhood and sexual maturity. Sande Society seniors wear carved masks that represent female beauty and ideals. Masks are worn by senior members in the Sande Society to mark the maturation of girls and their initiations. Sande Society collects sowei Masks because of the importance that culture gives to nurturing. Masks are a great way to express yourself and to play a role in society. Gelede cultural masquerades traditionally feature identical female and male pairs. Drewal also explains:

Gelede imagery is filled with male and feminine social roles. In Gelede, these roles are represented in part by figures engaged in specific activities or objects.

As a result, in Gelede society, men are represented by priests and warriors. Policemen, civil servants, and policemen are also depicted. In contrast, the female Gelede masques only depict “marketwomen”, possibly due to their cultural significance as mother figures. Masks and the superstructures that accompany them often present an idealised picture of a person’s role within society, despite the limited depictions of female occupations. The depiction in art of men who work in a given field can be used to reinforce a man’s value as a leader in his community. African women’s roles may not always be shown in social or occupational contexts, but they can still be idealized because they are known for their beauty. It is understandable that masks and costumes are not only religious but also important in defining a role in a community. Masks that depict roles are meant to represent stability in the economy and ensure certain attitudes and actions will not “endanger” traditional life.

Gelede masks immortalize stories, myths, as well as history. Drewal explains that oral testimony can clarify the images in a Mask. Gelede ceremonies, therefore, “recapitulates the entire history” of a community. Drewal says that, after the rites are performed, those who live can be assured of receiving the positive effects of the mothers’ power as long as they adhere to the norms.

The masks are worn as a symbol of the Gelede culture and to maintain order even after important members of the community have passed away.

It is clear that masks in the masquerade concept have become part of African cultures all over the continent. This has allowed for growth on both a social and an educational level. African masks, in addition to being timeless, have inspired future generations towards building prosperous communities. Masks have been used to represent spiritual rebirth, a way of improving Mede culture through education. In order to maintain a stable community, masks were used to depict idealized roles, behaviors, and actions for each gender. The masks of funerals serve as a medium to show future generations what culture and people were like before. Masks are associated with orishas, which have spiritual significance. They also represent cultural context, and the intention or values of the ritual.


  • seanevans

    Sean Evans is a 29-year-old school teacher and blogger who resides in Utah. Sean is an advocate for education and believes that every child has the right to a quality education. In addition to teaching, Sean also enjoys writing and has a blog where he discusses various topics related to education. Sean is an active member of the community and is always looking for ways to help others.