While masks serve a purely decorative purpose in Europe today, they used to play a significant role in former times and still do in other cultures.
African masks are spiritual in nature. They are worn not only during ritual dances but also to perform spiritual, religious and everyday rituals meant to establish a connection with the gods or to avert malign spirits. The masks are believed to offer protection from illness, to encourage fertility and to ensure a good harvest. They help to promote a successful transition during initiation rites, to establish a connection with the dead or one’s ancestors and to track down criminals. A mask bestows magical powers on its wearer. Each mask has a specific meaning and may only be worn by one specific person. The wearer of a mask leaves behind his or her personality and turns into the animal, the spirit, the ancestor or the deity represented by the mask. The mask connects this world with the beyond.
The art of making masks is handed down from generation to generation within a tribe and is held in high esteem. It requires great craftsmanship on the part of the artisans and artists as well as extensive knowledge of the religious and ceremonial imagery of their tribes.