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The Function of an African Mask


Chokwe Dance Mask

Chokwe Dance Mask
Photo © Daderot

In the early 20th Century, artists like Pablo Picasso and Andre Derain were inspired by the bold abstract designs that they discovered in African tribal masks. They collected and used these works of art to influence their own styles of Cubism and Fauvism. In effect, they used African culture to refresh the tired tradition of figure painting in Western Art.

As a result, we now tend to admire the bold design and abstract patterns of African masks through European eyes. We appreciate them as exhibits on museum walls, cut off from their original meaning and magical power. However, this is not how they were designed to be viewed.

African masks should be seen as part of a ceremonial costume. They are used in religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the good and evil forces in the community. They come to life, possessed by their spirit in the performance of the dance, and are enhanced by both the music and atmosphere of the occasion. Some combine human and animal features to unite man with his natural environment. This bond with nature is of great importance to the African and through the ages masks have always been used to express this relationship.

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An African mask from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

African mask from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
Photo: © Wegman