Tribal masks of West Africa depict ancestors, spirit beings and invisible powers. In tribal ceremonial events the people express moral as well as important social and religions values for the community, with the African tribal masks providing a symbolic and artistic refection of these values.
The particular associations of African tribal masks vary widely across the different tribes, but it is universal that the artists who create masks are held in high esteem, as well as the individuals who wear the masks during ceremonies. Therefore, only certain people may wear the masks, predominately, men. These men are either the chieftains or kings, the elders of the tribe or perhaps those with high social status.
Mask-making is prevalent among the Maasai of Kenya, who produce some stunning works of art. The art of mask-making is passed from father to son. Along with the teachings of the process of the mask construction is included the teachings of the symbolic meaning in each component of the mask.
Dances of West Africa in which masks are worn include most events and ceremonies such as initiation rites, weddings, births, and deaths. It is believed that when a person puts on a ritual mask the individual losses a personal identity and thus becomes the spirit that the mask represents. This transformation of the individual is supported by additional costuming, particular dance moves and specific music. What occurs, then, with this transformation is that the individual becomes a medium allowing for communication between the members of the community and the spirit impersonated by the mask wearer.
Each "dominion," whether it be ancestor, nature, or magic, has a pantheon of spirits, and these spirits each have their own mask. There may be as many as nearly 100 masks to represent and honor each being or energy.
The complexity and over all quality of a Maasai mask, and generally the masks of other West Africa cultures and tribes as well, is a demonstration of the importance of the spirit portrayed.
Many masks from Kenya are in the shape of an animal face or a human face, although often very abstract. One of the most interesting components of African masks is in their focus on an abstract appearance rather than a strictly realistic look. This is due to the belief in African cultures that it is the essence of the subject, rather than the look of the subject, that is of relevance. As an example, when depicting flying spirits, the Bwa people show these spirits in geometrical forms only.
The effect of this abstract look of African masks is that they appear extremely contemporary with their minimalist but intensely evocative lines and forms.
Many components of African masks are tribe-specific, with subtle aspects identifying which tribe a mask has come from as clearly as a signature.
Animals are often the subject of masks. The animal mask when worn by the tribal member is an opportunity to communicate with the particular animal. During this ritual the dangerous, wild animal is asked to stay away from the tribe. Animals also represent certain attributes such as patience or strength. Sometimes various human and animal attributes may be combined on a mask to illustrate a combination of outstanding virtues.
Another frequently employed subject for African masks are traits and attributes of feminine beauty. The wearing of these masks is, again, generally restricted to men.