African masks, to many are perhaps some of the most ornate handicrafts in the world. Produced even today, they are sought after by many enthusiastic collectors who value the unique colors, materials and style that's used to create something that's not just a work of art, but an insight into another culture.
Many people think that African masks are just ordinary, everyday masks. In fact for African tribes, these masks have huge cultural and religious significance, being used in all sorts of ceremonies. Worn by a special dancer, they are used in all sorts of rituals to mark special occasions such as initiations, rain-making, war and even ancestor worship.
In the traditional sense, African masks were used to create a connection with the spiritual nature of the religions of the African people. The dancer would act as a medium - often dancing in a possessed nature, taking on the meaning of the masks that he wore. Normally reserved for men of high status only, mask wearing and dancing is an integral part of African culture.
However, today - when one looks at what are African masks, there is a huge disparity between traditional mask making and the type of masks that many tourists and foreigners come across. Traditionally, mask making was a specialist skill handed down from father to son, it used to be that those who had the skill to make masks were even to some degree venerated.
Thanks to mass-production and worldwide interest in these masks, many tourist shops sell products that are simply designed to 'look' like the real thing. Traditionally, every mask is as unique as the tribe that made it - with various features meaning different things. For example, specific decorations might signify the tribe as peaceful, hard-working etc. These symbolisms make it possible to trace masks back to the very tribe that made them.
Today, many commercial masks are made in the spirit of their traditional counterparts, but when comparing the two - one cannot identify anything specific about them. The only thing that can be said is that they make great decorations for western tourists willing to part with their money to buy what is perhaps as close to the real thing as you can get.
Luckily, many tribes have not forgotten the importance and spiritualism that goes along with them. Despite a severe impact due to tourism, the ritual of mask wearing and dancing will always be a part of West African and Sub-Saharan tribal life.
African masks which are made out of wood, copper, fabric, and leather being painted using natural materials. They look just as fantastic as the real thing. It's possible to purchase replica African masks just about everywhere for next to nothing. When it comes to buying the 'real thing' however - African masks are something to be respected as they do indeed have a deeper meaning than many of us can appreciate.