It is impossible to fully imagine the impact of a traditional mask when looking at a photograph or even at an exhibit in a museum.
Masks in Africa were (and are still) used in performance. They are used in masquerades, rituals and communal events with many participants – who may be singing, chanting, dancing, drumming, shaking, or clapping, often for many hours or days at a time. They are usually worn with extended body costumes.
African masks do not usually portray living people. Rather, they are associated with supernatural beings. The mask shows the presence of a spirit (or its representative) from another realm, visiting the here-and-now. Some are spirits of gods, some of ancestors, some of warrior heroes or priestly figures. Some spirits are connected with fertility or illness, or are spirits of possession, while still others are spirits of nature – animals, the bush, earth, river, mountain, rain, storms, rock or tree. There are masks that mark rites of passage, others that judge, or show the way forward. Some are peaceful, and provide help; others might be angry, and capable of bringing suffering and punishment.