African tribal masks are without a doubt one of the greatest and most popular art forms in the entire African continent.

Most cultures and traditions in the world have some sort of customs and rituals that involve masks, but African art takes masking to a whole new level. Masking as an African art is not a new custom, this tradition can be traced back to thousands of years ago, long before civilization.

Africa has a very rich cultural heritage, home to hundreds of tribes with a remarkable history of  mask rituals.

Each tribe has its own unique set of customs and practices of masking. The full glory of African masks can be most felt in parts of Central Africa like the Democratic Republic of Congo, in West Africa, the Ivory Coast and Nigeria and in East Africa, Mozambique and Tanzania.

The artistry behind the African tribal masks is best described as expressive and multifaceted and this makes African masks incredibly fascinating.  There is so much more to the art of African masks than the brilliant craftsmanship of a sculpted piece.

The essence of these masks vary depending on its tribe of origin and its reason for being. Some masks have spiritual and religious value, some are used for ceremonial and festive purposes, while some are believed to possess supernatural powers and offer protection.

The point is, African masks are not just some form of African art or decorations, every single one of them has a serious purpose.

The more you know about African masks, the more you will come to appreciate their cultural and symbolic significance.

Common Types Of African Masks

When you think of a mask, the first image that comes to mind is a face mask right?

Well, African masks go well beyond the face. Here are some of the basic types of tribal masks you would find in Africa.

•    Face mask – The face mask is the most common type of mask. They are crafted in such a way that they cover a part or the whole face. Face masks are securely fitted to the wearer’s face via strings, scarves or bands.

•    Forehead masks – Forehead masks are created to just sit on the wearer’s forehead, like a cap crest. Sometimes, the masks may come with a veil made of fabric to cover the face, and in other cases, the face is left exposed.

•    Headdress masks – This type of mask is set on a base or ring such that it sits on top of the wearer’s head, hence the name headdress. The piece itself is usually a human or animal figure.

•    Shoulder masks – Shoulder masks are placed on the shoulders, they may have extensions that cover the top of the wearer’s body as well.

•    Helmet masks – Like the name suggests, helmet masks are designed to fit over the entire head of the wearer, just like a helmet.

•    Helmet crests masks – The helmet crest mask is very much like the helmet masks only that the piece does not cover the face. It is usually worn like a hat.


Examples of African mask

Next, let’s look at some of the popular African tribal masks from different tribes in the continent

1.    Baule masks

The Baule are a farming community whose people form the largest ethnic group in the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire).

They are mainly concentrated in the eastern side of the country, and although native to Ivory Coast, the Baule people are also related to people of the Akan tribe, a major ethnic group in the neighbouring country, Ghana.

The Baules are known for their stylistically diverse and sophisticated art, especially the masks and other wooden sculptures. The Baule masks are human masks, in other words, they do not represent the spirits of ancestors or deities.

The masks are used in several types of festivals and dances especially the goli, the mblo, the bonuamuen, and the gbagba dances.

The goli is a day-long festival of celebration and entertainment. The goli mask has a characteristic round shape, representing the sun and is surmounted by two buffalo horns, which represent the strength of the buffalo.

During the festival, the goli is introduced during a procession featuring four groups of dancers who are usually young adults. The goli can also be used during new harvest festivals, the visit of dignitaries and at the funerals of influential men in the community.

The Mblo masks are usually portraits of important figures of the society and are used mainly in tribal entertainment dances.

The bonuamuen mask, a wooden helmet mask representing an antelope or buffalo, is believed to protect the community from evil forces. It is also used at the funerals of notable members of the village.

The Gbagba mask is a double mask which represents the union of the sun and the moon. The mask is used to celebrate age and beauty and is often worn at the funerals of women during the season of harvest.

2.    Biombo masks

The Biombo are populated in a region south of the intersection of the Kasai and Lulua rivers in the Congo. The Biombo masks feature stylistic surface decoration, an art which was borrowed from the people of Eastern Pende. The masks usually have a characteristic red color gotten from to the tukula powder, a dye extracted from the camwood tree.

The eyes are carved in a coffee bean shape while the eyebrows and planes have triangular checkerboard designs. On top of the masks are three stubs which represent the hairstyle of the Biombo women. The masks are usually worn in tribal rituals and circumcision rites. They can also be decorated with feathers during ceremonies.

3.    Bwa masks

The Bwa are a community of people from Burkina Faso and Mali mainly composed of blacksmiths and farmers.

Bwa masks are produced by people in the southern part of the community. The mask has a flat plank shape with a crescent moon shape motif on top and a round face at the bottom end. It is a face mask worn over the face.

The wearer looks through a mouth hole carved out on the circular face of the mask. The eyes are concentric circles designed to look like that of the owl while the hook shape on the forehead is suggestive of the hornbill. The plank is painted with geometric designs in very vivid colors, and the motifs link to the history of the clan.

The Bwa mask is believed to possess supernatural forces, which act to benefit the community and whoever wears the masks is temporarily in control of the special powers. The masks are associated with fertility rites and divination ceremonies. They are also used to celebrate the initiation of young boys into adulthood.

4.    Dan masks

Dan people occupy a region stretching from the western side of Côte d’Ivoire into Liberian soil. Every Dan masks is sacred. While most African tribal masks represent spirits and ancestors, the Dan masks are the spirits themselves.

The masks have a characteristic concave face which ends with a pointed chin, a high domed forehead, and big pouty lips. The masks are carved out of wood and are often dyed to give a rich brown colour. Some of the masks may also feature scarification markings and designs.

The Dan people use the masks as a means of communicating with the spirits and for protection purposes. Some people also carry miniature forms of the masks (less than 8 inches in height) often called ‘passport’ masks.

These passport masks can be sewn into cloths which can be worn around on the waist on the small of the back or placed in leather couches. People can also make libations to passport masks as well.

When dancers wear these masks, the spirit of the mask possesses the dancer. Whatever language the dancer speaks in while masked is believed to be the language of the spirits which can only interpreted by a wise man who acts as an intermediary between the spirits and humans.

The are several Dan masks, and each one has a distinct function and use. The masks are used in tribal rituals like in the initiation of boys into adulthood, in entertainment, and for peace-making ceremonies.

5.    Goma masks

The Goma are people of a small area in the north of Lake Kivu which is at the north-western end of Lake Tanganyika in the Congo.

Goma masks have an elongated cylindrical structure,  a dome-shaped head, two large concave surfaces on each side of the face featuring eye sockets with bulging eyeballs and a protruding design for the mouth.

The masks have shield-like carvings with geometric abstract designs on the forehead and around the neck section.

6.    Kota masks

The Kota people occupy a territory stretching from the eastern part of Gabon into the Congo. The Kota tribe is essentially a group of people sharing a similar culture, the word Kota itself means to bind. Kota sculptures are known as ‘mbulu-ngulu,’ the people also have helmet masks called emboli or mbuto about 15 to 32 inches. These masks are carved out of wood and are wrapped with sheets of copper or brass. Kota figures are easily recognized with their stylized lozenge body shape.

Unlike most African masks, Kota masks have distinctive gender differences. Both faces are oval shaped, however, while the males have a convex surface or concave-convex surface, the females on the other end have concave surfaces. The top of the mask is a coiffure with hanging tresses on each side of the head. The figure is usually placed in a special basket or box known to the Kota people as Bwete.

The Kota make are use of celebratory dances during tribal rites like in the initiation of young men into adulthood. The Kota people also believe the masks pose the spirits of their ancestors and that they can summon the spirits in séances to help then deal with their troubles in life.

7.    Kwele masks

The Kwele live in a big forest land in a region which lies on the borders of the Congo, Gabon, and Cameroon. The people strongly believe that all the ills that befall them in life, from mysterious illnesses to unexplained deaths are caused by witchcraft.

To protect the community from the influence of witchcraft, they performed a sacred week long ritual known as ‘beete.’ This ritual involves masked performances with the Ekuk masks which means “children of beete” and “protective forest spirit.” This ritual cleanses the community and reinforces unity.

Kwele masks have a flat surface and terminate at the top with two large horns. Sometimes, the horns may be crafted to frame the face. The face is heart shaped with almond shaped eyes, a triangular nose and a very small mouth which may be absent. The face is often decorated with markings painted with white kaolin clay. The white represents the light and clarity which are needed in the fight against witchcraft. The masks can be worn during celebratory dances in the initiation ceremony of new members to the beete cult.

8.    Ligbi masks

The Ligbi people who share a similar culture with the Senufo were originally situated in the western part of Ghana but now occupy a territory in northern area the Ivory Coast. The Ligbi is an Islamised community, and their masked ceremonies are usually used to celebrate major Islamic holidays one of which is the end of Ramadan. The ceremony can go on for days, and it usually features the performance of masked dancers who are accompanied by loud singing, dancing, and drumming.

The Ligbi mask has an oblong face with downcast eyes which are curved and a rectangular mouth. The mask has trimmed wings on each side of the head and is surmounted by a large headpiece which could be plank shaped or curved in to look like horns. The Ligbi mask is often pigmented, and during celebrations, they are oiled up, decorated with make up and adorned with jewelry made of silver and gold. The mask possesses both human features and animal features, especially that the hornbill bird. The Ligbi consider the hornbill to be a mythical bird, a symbol of fertility and an attendant on the spirits of ancestors.

Other than Ramadan, the masks can also be worn during a dance performance to commemorate the death of an important Muslim man in the community.

9.    Lulua masks

The name Lulua is a general name used to refer to the heterogeneous people who occupy the region around the Lulua River in the Congo. The name was given by Hermann Von Wissmann and Paul Pogge, two German explorers who visited the region in 1881.

Lulua masks have intricate scarification markings and geometric patterns. The are carved out of wood and dyed with a red pigment to give the mask a rich dark red colour. The top of the mask features the stubs symbolizing power and the hairstyle of the Lulua women which usually have a pointy end. The mask is also believed to offer protection from sorcery, witchcraft and other evil forces.

10.    Lwalwa masks

The Lwalwa are related to the Lulua people, and they occupy the southwest region of the Congo spreading into Angola. The masks carvers in the community are highly revered members of the society. The typical Lwalwa mask has a distinctive triangular shaped head, small rectangular eyes, a large nose extending from a deeply formed forehead, big protruding lips with a protuberance on each side of the temple that make the ears. The stylized facial features come together to give the mask an almost geometric appearance.

There are four main types or Lwalwa mask; the nkaki which is worn by men, the mushika or kashika, which symbolizes the woman and features a frontal crest, the shifoola, and the mvondo. Lwalwa masks are carved out of a special wood called ‘mulela’ and dyed with a pigment extracted from the fruit of the ‘mukula’ tree.

The masks are worn in the bangongo dance of the hunting ritual and during the initiation and circumcision ceremony of adolescent boys and other secular festivities. The bangongo choreography was highly complex as it was used to compel the spirits to the action.

11.    Pende masks

Although there are hunters and fishermen amongst them, the Pende is majorly a farming community situated around the Kasai and Loango Rivers, in the southwest the Congo. The Pende hold their ancestors in high reverence and belief that neglecting them could bring about misfortune, hardship, and calamity.

The spirits are honoured during the masked celebrations held in the forest or a sanctuary in the home of the chief. The Pende masks are crafted in a very dramatic fashion and come in two styles; the KwiluPende have a characteristic sombre expression while the Kasai style is more geometric and colourful. The Kasai Pende has a geometric appearance with red and black triangle paintings on a reddish brown background.

The Kasai Pende have the minganji, which  represents the spirit and the mbuya representing the chiefs. Both masks are also called the masks of power. Pende masks can be used to communicate with the spirits during tribal rituals and in circumcision ceremonies.

12.    Punu masks

The Punu people occupy the land on the left bank of the Upper Ngoume River in the Gabonese Republic. The Punu were part of the Shira tribe in Angola before they migrated to Gabon in the 18th century. The community life is regulated by the moukouji society which uses a cult kit containing various sculptures and statuettes including masks.

Punu masks are feminine masks symbolizing the female ancestors and the beauty of Punu women. Only the men are allowed to be sculptors and carvers amongst the Punu people. Punu masks have a distinct high-domed coiffure representing the hairstyle of the Punu women, diamond-shaped scarification markings on the forehead, lips pursed in a pout and globular protruding eyes. The overall look is somewhat oriental although the is no known relationship between the Punu people and East Asians.

The masks are sometimes painted white kaolin earth, the colour of spirits, deities, and peace. The masks are usually worn during festive dances, funerals and in magical ceremonies like in the uncovering of sorcerers.

13.    Senufo masks

The Senufo are a farming community spread out across the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Ghana and in the southernmost part of Mali. The sculptors responsible for crafting the Senufo masks and other objects. They live in a different part of the village and are highly regarded and revered in the community. This reverence is based to the belief that sculptors possess natural forces which they channel into their sculptures to help connect the political and the spirit realm for communication purposes.

There are a variety of Senufo masks including the kpelie; a human faced mask encircled with horn-like protuberances. The waniugo is an animal head masks with features of multiple animals including the antelope, hyena, and warthog.

The masks are carved out of wood and are colored with a sienna pigment.

The Senufo worship the “Ancient Mother” Kolotyolo, a very powerful spirit which can only be intermediated to by smaller gods, not humans. The Senufo masks are worn during funerals and the initiation of young men into the Poro society. A male society that teaches young men about tradition and their responsibilities in the community.

14.    Teke masks

The Teke people occupy the territory stretching out from the Congo into Gabon. The word teke means “to buy” suggestive of the occupation of the people who are mainly traders. The Teke masks are moon shaped masks. They are flat surfaced and may be bisected in the middle by a horizontal stripe which could be painted red, blue,  brown, white or black. The masks also feature decorations of abstract geometric patterns and symbols to create a motif an abstract idealization of a human face.

The wearer holds the mask in place by biting a bite bar to hold the mask with his teeth.Teke masks are mainly worn by members of the Kidumu. The Kidumu is a secret cult which controls ceremonies and rituals in the community. The Kidumu themselves only wear thе mask at funerals, weddings and other events of importance.

15.    Woyo masks

The Woyo are a small fishing community on the coast of the Atlantic. Their land stretches from the southwest of the Congo in Cabinda, a province in Angola. Woyo masks are carved from wood, and they have a distinctive polychrome coloration. Designs and patterns and drawn in a colour with high contrast against the white background which is mostly white. Every colour has a symbolic meaning, and the Woyo people believe that repainting the masks helps to renew its strength.

The wearer of the Woyo mask is expected to wear a full-length skirt made from banana leaves. Woyo people believe strongly in witchcraft and sorcery which can be unmasked by fire and poison ordeals. The Woyo masks are often worn during funerals, celebrations and initiation ceremony of tribal elders.

16.    Yohure masks

The Yohure inhabit the central region of Cote d’Ivoire, an area marked out by the red and white Bandama rivers. Yohure masks feature horn-like stubs on the head thought to represent the elongated hairstyle of the Yohure women. The masks usually feature a high forehead; arched eyebrows curve to look like semi-circles with a small round protruding mouth. The face is also is outlined with serrated edge designs.

Yohure masks are also known to possess a combination of human and animal features. They are believed to be possessed by spirits and are considered dangerous because of the power they yield and must be handled with extreme caution. Women are not allowed to see the Yohure masks for fear of how the powerful spirits could influence them, especially their fecundity. The masks are worn mainly during a dance ritual where the dancers are painted all over with a black pigment. The dance ritual is believed to purify and cleanse the village of a death and help the community in handling the bereavement.

As women are not allowed to see the masks or even participate in the dances, before the commencement of the purification rights, every woman must be out of sight. The masks can also help influence the spiritual powers to work towards the welfare of the community.

The African tribal masks listed above are some of the major artworks from prominent tribes on the continent. These communities have deep-rooted mask customs and traditions often accompanied by ceremonies and sacred rituals. The masks define their culture and are a significant form of societal life for these people. However, these are not the only tribes that have masks customs. There are several more spread out all over the continent. To name and study each of them would take forever.

The African Tribal Artist

Carving is an art, a very much highly regarded and respected art in African tribes. However, carving as a skill is not just your kind of regular skill, it is something you have to learn and practice, sometimes for several years until your art is perfected. The beginner artist interested in learning the art of African tribal mask carving takes up specialized apprenticeship under a master carver who most likely has years of experience under his belt. During the period of training, the apprentice will not just learn traditional carving techniques; they will also be educated on the religious and social values of the mask and their importance in the community. Also, most African tribes run a patrilineal system and carving skills are passed down within the family from father to son through dozens of generations.

The Role of the African Tribal Artist

The African tribal artist is a very important person in the community. In some tribes, the carvers and sculptors are given high ranking positions in the society and some other tribes, the artists live in a different part of the community, separated from the rest of the tribe as a way of honoring them.

The role of the African tribal artist in the community is vital. It is their job to sculpt the masks, sculptures and other objects of cultural heritage used in tribal rites and ceremonies. The artist is thought to be in control of certain natural forces which he can bequeath to his artwork. These forces enable the connection to the spiritual realm, and without the artist’s mystical inspiration, tribal masks would be another piece of craft, devoid of any spiritual value.

The Influence of African Tribal Art on Western Art

African art is very expressive. The typical western viewer will be taken by surprise and possibly intrigued by the level of emotions a piece of sculpted work can invoke. I am of the belief that this fascination stems from the fact that Western art has become overworked and redundant. After centuries of art, at best, it is passive and undemonstrative.

Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, European artists began the search for more expressive art forms. Art that conveyed deeper meanings beyond the traditional techniques they were used to. The goal was to revive the now tired and predictable traditions of Western art by infusing cultural influences from other parts of the world. Unsurprisingly, the African tribal art appealed to them.

At first, the Westerners did not exactly appreciate the spiritual and religious essence of the African masks. African tribal art to them was just an unexplored genre with very expressive and refined aesthetics. Nevertheless, the discovery of African tribal art conceived and shaped new perspectives through the adoption of ideas and styles which opened new channels to the development of art. Today, African tribal masks are now better understood and appreciated in the world of art.

The Function of an African Mask

Like explained earlier, the dawn of the 20th century came with a need to revive the overworked and predictable Western arts. European artists like Pablo Picasso and Andre Derrain were at the forefront of this art revolution. The African tribal masks presented a solution to the tired tradition and perspectives in Western Art.

Expressionism, Cubism, and Fauvism are some of the art styles which derived a great deal of influence from African traditional arts. While this influence made an excellent contribution to the comeback of European arts, the revolution was not exactly mutually beneficial for African arts.

Sure today, we can all flock to museums and art galleries to view and admire various African masks, and while the exposure is great, the main reasons why these masks were created goes beyond mere exhibition.

Here are some of the functions these masks was created to serve.

•    Ceremonies

African tribal masks are often worn as a ceremonial costume. They could be oiled and decorated with feathers depending on the tribe and ceremony. They often represent the spirits of ancestors or the gods worshipped in the community. It is believed that the spirits possess the wearer of the mask during the ceremonial dance performance. The dancer, during this period, is in a trance-like state induced by the drumming, singing, dancing, and incantations. A translator, usually a wise man of high status in the community, will aid the communication with the spirits by translating the utterances of the dancer.

•    Rituals

African masks are often used to represent a force more powerful than man; thus during sacred rituals and customs, the masks may be used as a receptacle for incantations and libations to a higher being. Some of the common masks rituals include; rituals in preparation for hunting/war, circumcision, initiation into adulthood/manhood/womanhood/secret cult, cleansing and purification rites, magical rites to unmask sorcery and witchcraft, etc.

•    Celebrations

The African masks are also often used in dance performances, usually as part of a bigger theatrical event. Some of the masked dancers are often completely masqueraded with extra props and customs to entertain the audience. Examples of the celebratory events include; harvesting, market day festivals, funerals, and commemorative occasions, post-war victory celebrations, post-hunt gratitude and so on.

The Materials of an African Mask

African tribal masks are carved from a variety of materials, but the primary ones include; wood, terracotta, bronze, brass, copper, ivory, leather and glazed pottery. They are often adorned with objects like feathers, witchcraft, cowrie shells, beads, raffia, quills, and kaolin pigments.

Wood is the most common of all materials for masks and sculptures in general because, for starters, wood is readily available and accessible. Additionally, the carvers believe that the forest trees are inhabited by spirits. Before a tree is cut down for carving purposes, sacrifices are offered to the tree to request the permission of the spirit to cut down the tree, as a sign of respect. The wood may be splashed with the sacrificial blood to increase the power of the masks.

Wooden masks are usually coloured with natural dyes extracted from clay, seeds, leaves and tree bark. The tools used in the carving process are also believed to possess spiritual forces, and as they are passed down the family, they inherit the skills and spiritual powers of their owners.

The Use of Pattern in African Masks

African tribal artists are very expressive in their art. Patterns and designs are used in a number of ways to convey meanings and significance. Read on to learn more about the usefulness of patterns and decorations on African masks.

  • Geometric patterns can be used to place emphasis on gender differences in face masks. For example, coiffures adorning the top of the head often indicate a female masks.
  • Scarification markings or tattoos on a mask are used to denote religious powers or high social status. They are often drawn as zigzag, parallel, spiral or curved lines on the planes or forehead.
  • Some designs such as geometric patterns and interlacing crosses found of masks are used to slow the influence of the Islamic faith in African art.

The Style of African Masks

By now, we have established that African tribal masks are carved to represent deities, ancestors, and elements of power.  However, in crafting the mask, a perfect representation of the subject of interest is not the artist’s focal point. Granted, the masks have some semblance in physical features to the subject, but a realistic representation is not what most artists go after. African tribal masks are idealized to emphasize the important abstract qualities of the subjects such as strength, courage, beauty, virtue, dignity and so much more.

The style of an African tribal mask is greatly influenced by two main forces;

  • The general, traditional style set by the religious beliefs and social practices of the people.
  • The mystical inspiration of the carver.

The main elements that are accentuated in an African mask are;

Composition – Geometrical patterns, shapes, and forms are used to denote nobility and virtue.

Texture – Smooth and polished surfaces portray a healthy skin usually associated with youth and beauty. Coarse and dirty surface alludes evil.

Shape – African masks come in various shapes and sizes. The common forms are circular, oval, heart-shaped and rectangular. The masks can either have human or animal attributes or a combination of the two.

How to Design an African Mask: a step by step guide

Now, we will go through a step by step guide on how to create and design an African tribal mask as a paper collage. The end of this guide, you should be able to design a typical African mask on your own.

1)    Designing an African Mask

In this guide, you will learn the following essential collage techniques;

•    How to balance different shapes and forms

•    How to adapt and blend color, pattern, and texture on your mask design.

•    How to symmetrically arrange your design

•    How to customize your mask design with various materials

2)    Art Material

The materials you will need for your design include; a pencil,  scissors or a small craft knife, glue and two sheets of heavy grade paper weighing between 250g to 300g or a card.

The sheets should be of the same size but with contrasting color tones, preferably a light color and a darker color. The color contrast will be used to balance the positive and negative features of your design.

Once you have assembled all the materials you will need to;

•    Fold the light colored sheet into two equal halves.

•    Then cut along the crease using your scissors or knife.

•    Next, take one half of your light sheet and put it on top of the dark sheet.

•    Now, arrange the two sheets in a portrait format; what you have should be a half light and half dark sheet

3)    Designing the Eyes:

To design the eyes;

•    Halfway down the paper, draw an eye on the light paper, you can use simple shapes like a circle to represent the eye.

•    The shape and angle at which you set your eye will help define the expressive qualities of your mask.

•    Now cut out the eye shape on your light paper and place on your dark paper. Ensure that the eyes on both sheets are symmetrically aligned.

•    This arrangement will help you create a balance between the light and dark tones.

•    You should note that more simplified and basic shapes have a more expressive impact compared to well detailed forms.

4)    Designing the nose

The steps for designing the nose are pretty similar to designing the eyes. To design the nose;

•    Draw one half of a nose on the light sheet; you can choose alternative designs for the nose.

•    The length of your nose should be roughly between your eyes and the bottom of the paper.

•    Now cut out the nose from the light paper and place it on the dark sheet.

•    The nose of both sheets should be in symmetry with each other.

•    The aim is to maintain the color contrast on your design.

5)    Designing the mouth

To design the mouth;

•    Draw one half of the mouth on the light sheet

•    Cut out flip over the mouth shape on the dark coloured paper

•    Ensure that both halves are aligned with the vertical edge of both coloured sheets.

•    Cut out the inside of the mouth on the dark coloured paper and place it on the light side. The aim is to create the illusion of an opening.

•    The cut out can be rectangular, zig-zag or circular.

6)    Designing the Face

To design the face;

•    Draw out a basic shape for the outline of the face on the light coloured sheet.

•    You do not have to be conventional with the shape of the face. It can be circular, oval, rectangular or heart-shaped.

•    The shape you choose for your mask will dictate the expressive qualities of your mask.

•    Next cut out the shape of the face leaving the face itself intact.

•    Take the background shape of the light paper which will have a cut out where the face used to be and flip it on the dark side.

•    Ensure that it is in symmetry with the other half of the face.

•    This will balance the positive and negative sides of the design to blend the different tones.

7)    Decorating the face- Face Markings

When it comes to decorating your mask, you can use geometric patterns, scarification marks or tattoo designs.

•    Draw out your designs on the light sheet; you can draw them on the forehead, the chin and on the planes of the face.

•    Like with others, cut out your geometric patterns or scarification marks as the case may be and flip them on the other side of the face to create a symmetrical arrangement.

8)    Stylizing the hair

To design the hair;

•    Draw out a stylized design you want to represent the hair on the light background.

•    You can go for a basic linear design if there are a lot of circular shapes on your mask or vice versa. The goal here is to create a contrast with the rest of the mask.

•    Again, cut out the hair design and flip it over the dark background.

•    Once the design is properly aligned, the layout of your mask is completed.

9)    The finished design

To finish up the design on your mask;

•    Glue both halves of design (light and dark backgrounds) together.

•    Ensure there is a neat line where the two sides are joint to create an accurate symmetry.

Once this is done, you can proceed to develop your mask design with texture, colour, and pattern. The texture, colour, and pattern you choose will impact the mood and expressive qualities of your mask.

To develop the color;

•    Use different colors of paper, the more contrasting the colors, the better. (This should be at the start of the project).

•    You can use cards with a reflective or metallic surface to enhance the effects of the mask design in the light.  

•    You can also experiment the paper with coloured inks sprays to give your mask any colour you want. A heavy grade paper which is highly recommended should be able to withstand the spray or paint.

•    If you are going for a stained effect, a fluid watercolor technique will work perfectly.

To develop the texture;

•    You can use materials like glue, sand, paper and even paint to create a textured surface.

•    Essentially any material that can be pasted on the card can be used to develop the texture.

•    Remember African masks are antique objects so going for a weathered and rough effect wo give the mask a more realistic look.

Extra tips to designing a mask;

•    Ensure that the colours you use maintain a strong tonal contrast between the two halves of the mask.

•    While it can be tempting to go overboard with the features,  you should know that simplified and bolder designs are generally more expressive and visible than the detailed features.

•    The cut outs from this mask can form a stencil which you can use to spray your mask design on any surface.

•    Finally, you are designing an African tribal mask, be everything but subtle.


African tribal masks can be traced as far back as the stone age. The carving of African masks involves skilled craftsmanship which employs not just complex craft techniques but spiritual and cultural knowledge as well. Every mask has it’s own specific function and uses in various tribal rituals and ceremonies. It is safe to say that African tribal masks are an integral part of community life for the people of the various tribes.

However, rather, unfortunately, African masks are slowly losing their authenticity and cultural identity majorly as a result of the European influence and the scattering of people away from their homeland. Nevertheless, African tribal masks have an aura around them which puts them among the most expressive and charismatic of African art.


African Mask and Types of African Mask

Example of African Mask


Biombo Mask

Bwa Plank Mask

Dan Mask

Goma Mask

Kota Mask

Kwele Mask

Ligbi Mask

Lulua Mask

Lwalwa Mask

Pende Mask

Punu Mask

Senufo Mask

Teke Mask

Woyo Mask

Yohure Mask

The African Tribal Artist

The Function of  an African Mask

The Materials of an African Mask

The Use of Pattern in African Masks

The Style of African Masks

Designing an African Mask

Art Material

Designing the eyes

Designing the nose

Designing the mouth

Designing the face

Decorating the face- Face Markings

Stylizing the hair

The finished design