Strictly speaking, masks are designed to hide the faces of the people who wear them. But masks themselves are also faces presented to the world, the alter-egos of their wearers as well as windows into the societies that made them. In this way, masks conceal while exposing, obfuscate while revealing, camouflage while laying bare.

Those who gravitate toward such ineffable examples of visual art, though, are generally guided by geography rather than lofty sounding metaphysical conceits. Many seek out the wooden tribal masks of Africa, which were popularized in the Western world by artists such as Pablo Picasso. Others favor the raffia and sea-shell decorated masks of Oceania, the bug-eyed head coverings worn in parts of Indonesia, or the totemistic constructions engineered by indigenous peoples along 1,000 miles of North America’s Pacific coast, from the Columbia River, which defines the Washington-Oregon border, to Yakutat Bay, Alaska, which is less than a day’s hike from the southwestern edge of Canada’s Yukon territory.

African masks are usually divided into those from West Africa (including present-day Mali, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone) and equatorial Africa (primarily present-day Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was known throughout much of the 20th century as Zaire). Historic masks from these areas that are bought and sold at prestigious auction houses are identified by both their country of origin and the tribe that made them. For example, the Dogon of central Mali were famous for their boxy antelope masks, as well as the Dama masks worn during rituals for departed ancestors. The Bambara, also from Mali, are known for their antelope headdresses called chi wara, which can be decoded to further identify their source based on their shapes and orientation (vertical or horizontal).

Other ceremonies associated with African masks are initiation rites, for which the Bijugo of the Bissagos Islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau made helmets in the shapes of sharks and bulls, complete with horns. Then there are the masks made by Ivory Coast tribes such as the Dan, whose dark, almond-shaped carvings depict everything from mountain spirits to ideals of female beauty.

Masks from equatorial Africa are prized for their lavish adornment. Braided fiber, glass beads, cowrie shells, and feathers are routinely affixed to outsize masks that cover the face, extend well beyond the top of the head, and often down the chest as well. Well known mask-making tribes of the former Zaire include the Yaka (one of several tribes that made large kakuungu masks), the Kuba (actually a catchall for more than 20 tribes near the Kasai and and Sankuru rivers), and the Chokwe (masks worn by dancers include the cihongo for men and the pwo for women).

Popular masks in Asia include many types that were (and, in some cases, still are) used in plays, which are similar to rituals inasmuch as the roles of the wearers are codified and broadly understood by audiences. Tall, multi-headed papier-mâché headdresses were worn by Thai actors performing Khon plays; carved wooden masks with the faces of demons (complete with bared teeth and vertical third eyes) were made for tsham plays performed in Buddhist monasteries in Tibet; and painted wooden Noh masks are practically synonymous with the art of Japan.


Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Timeline of Art History

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Timeline of Art History

Travel around the world through art with this museums collection of over 6,000 works of art, from Egypt to North A… [read review or visit site]



Most watched eBay auctions    

3554 Fierce Guere Divination Fetish Mask Cote D'ivoire Dan (now Bidding From 1p)Rare Giant Asmat Spirit Mask Bi-pane Shell Nosepiece Papua New Guinea Png Tribe9 - Very Rare Zakpai Dan Maou Stilt Dancer Mask, Cote D'ivoire (£595 Down To 1p) Iroquois Smallpox Mask With Long Corn Husk Hair -authentic -signed /dated 2010Iroquois False Face Mask. Onondaga Nation Wolf ClanFalse Face Mask 6 Nations Collectable Hand Carved Bye Wolf Clan1448 African Tribal Collection - Grebo Kru Shield Mask - Liberia DanMende Sande Society Mask, Estate PurchaseRare Authentic Antique Native American Indian Eskimo Inuit Yupik Tortoise Mask!Fantastic Signed Japanese Noh Mask17c Ming/transitional Chinese Porcelain Klapmuts Symbols Antique Mask RinaldiAntique Carved Wood Porcupine Quill Huave Mask Ritual Ceremonial /cir.1900!Dan We Guere Mask Monkey Liberia African Art Sale Was $495Vintage Wooden Carved Senufo Kpelie Tribal Ancestor Mask - Ivory CoastMichael Kanteena Laguna Pueblo Katsina Kachina Mask PotteryVintage Mayan Aztec Hand Cave Wooden Warrior Mask With Detailed Engraved FeatureGuro Zamble Mask, Estate PurchaseAfrican Art Guro Tribal Mask Ivory CoastNative American Raven/mask RattleLarge Vintage Native Northwest Coast Cedar Pugwis MaskFalse Face Mask 6 Nations Hand Carved Collectable Collection An Early 20th Century Lower Sepik Amulet MaskVery Old African Carved Wood Congo Luba Painted Tribal MaskJapanese Antique Bugaku Buddhist Statue Noh Mask Edo Temple Gold Foil Leaves Sculpture Mask Indigenous Brazil Wooden Hand Carved 12" X 4 1/2 "Authentic Non Touristic Balinese Theatre Mask "topeng"Very Old African Carved Wood Gungunhana Mask From St Louis Ethnographic MuseumZuni Hand Beaded Standing Doll Vintage Hair Dancer Kachina Feather Flute? Mask*west Coast Indian Art Tsonokwa Mask Kwakiutl By J Wolf British Columbia Canada*Decorative Kwele Mask - Reference Mask, From The Kwele Tribe, Gabon, West AfricaJapanese Noh Mask Depicting Koomote CharacterIgbo Mask African Tribal Art Africain Arte Africana Afrikanische Kunst3592 African Tribal Collection - Stunning Bete Nyabwa Mask, Cote D'ivoireVery Old African Carved Red Wood Tribal MaskOld African Carved Wood Paude Mask Nice PatinaFalse Face Mask 6 Nations Hand Carved Collectable Collection Old African Carved Wood N'dau Tribe Zimbabwe MaskAntique African Carved Wood Ibo Igbo Nigeria Spirit MaskChinese Tibetan Bronze Evil Spirits Mahakala Wrathful Deity Buddha Mask StatueAntique African Carved Wood With Straw & Woven Work MaskVery Old African Carved Wood & Straw On Burlap MaskOld African Carved Wood Large Painted Man's Sabou MaskAntique African Carved Wood Mask Tribal With Nice PatinaAntique African Carved Wood Lwalwa MaskVery Old African Carved Wood Tribal Lagos Nigeria MaskOld African Carved Wood & Hand Painted Mask W/ Rope & ClothOld African Carved Wood Painted Woman Sabou MaskOld African Carved Wood Ngbaka Tribe Congo MaskAntique African Carved Wood Nigeria Ibo Igbo MaskOld African Carved Wood Large Painted Woman MaskOld African Carved Wood Chokwe Tribe Mask Republic Of CongoThriftchi ~ Artisan Polished Stone Mask Decorative Display Aztec IncanNew Guinea Classical Tambanum Mask 1960sAfrican Tribal Collection - 1621 Ligbi Yangaleye Dance Mask, Cote D'ivoireAfrican Kuba Mask From Congo ItokNew Ku Towell Holder Tiki Mask Smokin' Tikis Hawaii 3917Vintage Hand Painted Wood Mask From IndonesiaHand Carved Wood Tribal Mask African Or Pacific Northwest? Signed R. SimeonJapanese Antique Buddhist Nichiren Statue Noh Mask Edo Temple Gold Foil Leaves Japanese Antique Buddhist Zushi Statue Noh Mask Edo Temple Gold Foil Leaves