African Masks: Connecting with the Afterlife

MaskNational Museums of Kenya

The meaning behind the African mask

Masks are an essential feature of traditional African culture and have served an important role in ritual and ceremony for centuries. They are both idea and form. The artistry of African masks is self evident and, for the people who create them, they have a much deeper meaning than surface beauty.

In general, the mask form is a physical mechanism to initiate transformation, whereby the wearer takes on a new entity, allowing him to have influence on the spirits to whom he is appealing to or offering thanks.

Tiriki Mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

The cultural heritage preserved by masks

While the specific implications associated with ritual masks widely vary in different cultures, some traits are common to most African cultures. For instance, masks usually have a spiritual and religious meaning, and they are used in ritual dances, social and religious events.

A special status is attributed to the artists that create masks, and to those who wear them in ceremonies. In most cases, mask-making is an art that is passed on from father to son, along with the knowledge of the symbolic meanings conveyed by these masks.

MaskNational Museums of Kenya

Variety in forms and colors

Traditionally masks were made in various forms and shapes, and the craftsmen used readily available materials to make them. Wood, ivory, metals and animal skin are some of the materials used to make them. African masks come in all different colours, such as red, black, orange, and brown.

MaskNational Museums of Kenya

Animal forms

Masks are often made to resemble people, animals and other objects that people identify with. Many African masks represent animals. Some African communities believe that the animal masks can help them communicate with the spirits who live in forests or open savannah.

MaskNational Museums of Kenya

Some masks cover the entire body, like The Morongociek

While most masks cover only the face, there are full body masks such as this seclusion mask used by the Maa community.

Tiriki Mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Tiriki seclusion mask

This is an ideal illustration of a full-body mask in use. The Tiriki boy depicted is wearing a mask after circumcision. This mask is exclusively worn by initiates for a period of six months, during which they are in seclusion while in training for adulthood.

Kuria face mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Concealing the human form

Masks used for rituals conceptually transform the wearer into a spiritual being, losing their human form in the process. For instance, penitents use masks in ceremonies to disguise their identity in order to make the act of penitence more selfless.

This is a transformation of the mask-wearer into a spirit, which usually relies on other practices – such as specific types of music and dance, or ritual costumes that contribute to concealing the mask-wearer's human identity. Depicted is a Kuria man in a mask, concealing his identity.

Dance mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Entertainment value of masks

Masks were very important during ceremonies because they were used to entertain the people. The masks made dancers look more exciting, and they played a major role in arousing the interest of the audience.

Luo Funeral Mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Ritual contexts for masks

The mask wearer can become a sort of medium that allows for a dialogue between the community and the spirits. Most times, the spirits mentioned are those of the dead, or nature-related. Masked dances are a part of most traditional African ceremonies related to weddings, funerals, initiation rites, and cleansing.

Samia mask by Joy AdamsonNational Museums of Kenya

Protecting the dignity of the wearer

Most of the Kenyan communities were not sexually permissive and, when fertility rituals were conducted, the participants usually disguised themselves to avoid social stigma. The people who conducted the rituals could not perform without masks, showing that masks gave them the courage to go on and perform.

ModelNational Museums of Kenya


Masks are sometimes used to punish the wearer, either by signaling their humiliation or causing direct suffering. Some communities had shameful masks. A "shameful" mask is devised for public humiliation; other masks were used for punishing social deviants, particularly uncomfortable types, such as an iron mask.

MaskNational Museums of Kenya

Marks of authority

In the past, masks were used to associate the wearer with some kind of unimpeachable authority. This means that influential people in society used to wear masks as a symbol of power and authority.

When a ruler such as a chief or a king died, people used to make masks which resembled that person, so as to honor him. These masks also acted as evidence of existence of that ruler, and were made so that the ruler could be remembered in future.

Credits: Story

Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curators: Immelda Kithuka, Archivist.

Mercy Gakii, Cultural Expert, Cultural Heritage

Photography and Creative Direction:
Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini.
Gibs Photography

The National Museums of Kenya would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this exhibit:

Exhibit Layout: Barnabas Ngei.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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