In Africa, masks can be traced back to well past Paleolithic times. These art objects were, and are still made of various materials, included are leather, metal, fabric and various types of wood.
African masks are considered amongst the finest creations in the art world and are highly sought after by art collectors. Many of the pieces some replica’s, can be viewed in museums and art galleries in many parts of the world. Masking ceremonies in Africa have great cultural and traditional significance. Latest developments and understanding of Aesthetic principles, religious and ceremonial values, have brought about a greater insight into the ideas and moral values that African artists express in their art.
During celebrations, initiations, crop harvesting, war preparation, peace and trouble times, African masks are worn by a chosen or initiated dancer. It can be worn in three different ways: vertically covering the face: as helmets, encasing the entire head, and as crest, resting upon the head, which was commonly covered by material as part of the disguise. African masks often represent a spirit and it is strongly believed that the spirit of the ancestors possesses the wearer.
Ritual ceremonies generally depict deities, spirits of ancestors, mythological beings, good and or evil, the dead, animal spirits, and other beings believed to have power over humanity. Masks of human ancestors or totem ancestors (beings or animals to which a clan or family traces its ancestry) are often objects of family pride; when they are regarded as the dwelling of the spirit they represent, the masks may be honored with ceremonies and gifts.
During the mask ceremony the dancer goes into deep trance, and during this state of mind he “communicate” with his ancestors. A wise man or translator sometimes accompanies the wearer of the mask during the ritual. The dancer brings forth messages of wisdom from his ancestors. Often the messages are grunted utterances and the translator will accurately decipher the meaning of the message. Rituals and ceremonies are always accompanied with song, dance and music, played with traditional African musical instruments.
For thousands of years, rituals and ceremonies was and to a lesser extent is still an integral part of African life. The gradual, effects of parceled out territories to Colonial governments, and the ensuing damage to traditional economies followed by the displacement of huge quantities of people, by colonialism, resulted in economies and food production systems being wrecked. In general the vast number of people have lost some of its tribal identity and culture, hence masking ceremonies are no longer common place in Africa.