Ibo/Igbo Nigeria Elephant mask
The northern Ibo have many masks incarnating the special spirit of the elephant. The Ibo use thousands of masks embodying different spirits of the dead. Masks are used for judging and decision-making, but also sometimes for entertainment.
Dan, Liberia Poro society mask
Dan masks are guarded by the “go” master, the head of the secret society of the leopard. He is responsible for the initiation rites of young men into adulthood.
The Dan people traditionally divided their surrounding world into two realms: the village with all its inhabitants (the human realm), and the forest (the spirit realm) where the spirits and animals reign. The forest is seen as sacred. Crossing the boundary between the human realm and the spirit realm may only be done by saying a prayer, while wearing materials from both worlds – thus creating a link between the two.
Dogon, Mali Kanaga mask
These tall masks might be owned by many different men in a single community, and in a kanaga mask-dance there might be dozens dancing together at one time.
In addition to the mask, the kanaga dancer wears a vest made of black and red cloth strips embroidered with white cowrie-shells, glass and plastic beads. The dancer also wears trousers made of indigo-dyed cloth, over which he ties a skirt of curly black fibres and straight red and yellow fibres. The preparation and dyeing of the fibres are done with as much secrecy and ritual as the carving of the wooden mask.
Outsiders are sometimes told that the kanaga mask represents a bird with white wings and black forehead, but this literal interpretation is for the uninitiated. The deeper meaning of the kanaga mask is said to refer both to the creator-god, the crossbars being his arms and legs, and to the universe, with the upper crossbar representing the sky and the lower one the earth.
Dogon, Mali Walu: the antelope mask
This mask depicts a mythical antelope known as Walu. The dancer wearing this mask carries two sticks, with which he will paw at the ground, imitating the antelope’s movements.
The Dogon people are a farming society. The Walu masks are used during ceremonies (along with agricultural sacrifices) to commemorate the origin of death. It is believed in Dogon society that death came into the world as a result of primeval man’s sins against the gods.
This mask is used at funeral ceremonies. There may be a few masks, or many dozens, or even hundreds: the more important the deceased, the more masks there will be.
Congo Kifwebe mask
Kifwebe masks used to be made for the Bwadi Bwa Kifwebe association, a type of policing society that helped to control social behavior and manage disruptive elements within the group. These masks had many other functions, too: they would appear at the inauguration and death of a chief, and at the initiation rites of young men. They were also used in a range of occasions that included punishments, warfare and communal tasks (like digging a ditch or making a road).
There is great variety and symbolism within the various Kifwebe masks. More than thirty different mask names have been recorded. Several have animal names, while other masks have names of illnesses like leprosy, or of natural phenomena. According to informants, animals are also represented in many “classical” Kifwebe masks (although in a somewhat abstract way). Stripes are associated with a variety of antelope, zebra and okapi. Other animal representations mentioned include the crocodile (chin), chameleon (eyes), monkey (eyes), rooster (crest), owl (feathered horn), buffalo (some large curved stripes on cheeks), anteater or aardvark (mouth), pangolin (the tiered surface).
A small number of the masks are female, with special markings showing this (though these masks are still worn by males). In the ritual dance, they move calmly. Their task is to invoke friendly spirits that will influence the future generation. Female masks are associated with the moon and are worn for moon rituals, as well as during funerals and initiation rites.
Northern Gabon, South Cameroon Fang (Pangwe) mask
These masks were part of the “Ngi” society in this region, and were used by the Fang-Fang and Fang-Ntumu people in anti-witchcraft rituals. The wooden mask would be covered with a white clay called kaolin. (The colour white often evokes the spirit world and the ancestors.)
The masks lean on large mounds of earth that are shaped into almost human forms. The mask would be placed like a head on top of these shaped “bodies”. These would stand as guards protecting the village against witches. The masks could also be picked up and danced with, usually in a threatening manner. The dancer, called the “nom ngi”, would carry a machete and slash outwards with it as he danced.
Baule, Ivory Coast Amuen Yasua: Glao mask
This mask is thought to represent the hippopotamus. Chosen members of the Baule people will wear this mask in a dance to protect the village from threats and dangers.
Dan, Liberia Glewa: the Judgement mask
The glewa, or judgement mask, is associated with the powerful “go” society, and is used to judge in disputes between villages. These masks are made and worn only by men.
The Dan people believe that the performing dancer is transformed into a spirit, and is able to make wise judgements. The masked dancer will speak in the language of the spirit – which usually cannot be understood by its audience. A learned man that accompanies the dancer will then translate the messages for the people.