Cultural Context of African Masks and Headdresses within Society

Written by Shelly Bukoskey, Kim Peters, and Alana (AJ) Stuit

Africans societies use masks and headdresses in conjunction with music and dance to portray various aspects within their culture. Societies developed an array of costumes and headdresses when celebrating life events. Masks were often used as a narrative device, especially in a largely illiterate society. From studying these items we can deconstruct what they meant to past societies, and what current westerners have taken from them. From studying objects from three different African societies, we have a greater understanding of symbolic development in that era.

The 19th and 20th century art from the Senufo culture is interesting and different in the fact that the majority of the pieces come from a smaller society within the people, called the Poro. The Poro is the male society, much like a guild, and they are most commonly located in the forests of Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso. From the Poro comes a variety of sculptured work, including but not limited to wood-fiber masks, such as the Wanyugo mask.

The Wanyugo are to be crafted and worn by the men of the Poro alone, and at numerous ceremonies. Funerals in particular show the fearsome double-headed mask in use for all to see. Details of the mask include teeth like fangs, and lengthy pointed tusks. Some masks are decorated with paint, while few others are encrusted with alternative artifacts. As seen in image A1, the Wanyugo mask shares this simple yet terrifying beauty. This feeling and visual comes from the mask’s ultimate purpose: warding off and destroying evil spirits and witches. Legend tells that, in the process of taking out the spirits, that mask is so powerful that it can spark and ignite, and has therefore been dubbed by most as the “fire-spitter mask.”

To the Senufo people, the Wanyugo gives comfort, confidence, and even excitement. Even though the masks establish an idea of evil in the world–which can be troublesome–they also present a means for coping with said evil, and a way of eliminating it altogether. To participate in a ceremony, to witness the power of the mask in action, would be a thrill for the Senufo people, to say the least. These experiences are subsequently incredibly important to the Senufo, as they aid in continually shaping the culture as a whole, as well as bring about shared beliefs and community.

Today, many of the masks have made it outside of the Senufo community and into the hands and eyes of everyday individuals. Some masks are even being sold for top dollar to those who are willing to purchase. In this sense, that Wanyugo mask has been materialized and devalued in its original purpose. One could also say, however, that the keeping and treasuring of the artistic value of the mask compensates for the loss of culture from which the mask originated. To us, the mask intrinsically has value because of both its physical state, its beauty, but also because it has a pertinent-to-the-culture background story. We believe that its value is far from one-sided, and does not depend on the opinion of one person or another. The Wanyugo may be a simple, wooden, man-made mask, but it is also so much more, to the Senufo, to the critics and collectors, and to us.

A1 – Wanyugo Mask of Senufo Culture in VMFA

The Bamileke culture is based in western Cameroon, which is an African grassland. Today the Bamileke people have over one million in population, and have about 123 different villages across the nation.  Western Cameroon is known for it’s rich fertile soil, both men and women work together to maintain their crops. Within each village they communally pool the land, and then further divide the land between chiefs and head males, who further split their plots between their wives and children. Often the village is run by a council. In the past, many chiefs believed that they possessed supernatural powers; some powers included being able to transform into an animal, so leaders were commonly represented as elephants, buffalo, and leopards. Royal ceremonies often depicted these animals through masks and objects. One of the most important, and rare, are the Elephant Masks.

Within the culture there were societies, each reporting to the king. Each society would create its own dances and unique set of masks. The Elephant mask found at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (image B1) originated from the Kuosi society. The Kuosi society would adorn the mask at the Kuosi celebration, which was held every other year. Only men would wear these masks, which represented strength and power. The mask is made of cloth, beads, feathers, reeds, horsetail, and ivory. Elephant masks have intense geometric patterns beaded into them, however some are more heavily beaded than others. The amount of beading often portrayed the wealth within the society. Colors of the beads would often represent different things; black most often represents the link between death and life, red stood for womanhood, and white meant ancestry. Diamond patterns depicted on the robes mimicked leopard spots. Bamileke dancers would often wear the Juju hat (shown in image B1) which was made of bird feathers. Birds showed the fragility of life, as well as prosperity within the society.

Unfortunately, today many people have appropriated the headdress, by featuring the object as home décor. Buyers are attracted to the vibrant colors and textures the headdresses provide. Originally the “Juju hat” was called a Tyn, however the word Juju was derived from a Nigerian word “djuju” which was translated into the French word “joujou”.  Traditionally the elderly and leaders would wear these headdresses for various celebratory ceremonies. Today Ebay, Amazon, and Pinterest are filled with links to buy or create a DIY version. These once elegant pieces of tradition, history, and storytelling have been diminished to mere decoration. In some sense the value of the object has also been reduced, due to rise of popularity. No longer are they objects of historic value – in fact, the market has been flooded with both tourist items and acclaimed “authentic” goods. A quick Google search shows that the prices range from $30 to $500. Although the hats are agreeably fascinating and gorgeous, using them as home décor eliminates the context in which the headdresses should be viewed.

B1 – Elephant Mask of Kuosi Society (Bamileke culture) at VMFA

The Yoruba culture of Africa, which spreads between Nigeria, Togo, and Benin, includes the Gelede ritual, an event that includes art (through masks) as well as ritual dance meant to incite feelings of worship in the people, making them feel closer to their culture’s spiritual experiences. Gelede is a celebration and appreciation of the dignified power of ayon iya wa (“Mothers”), which is a specific group in their belief system that includes female ancestors and deities, along with elderly women in the community. There are both positive and negative sides to this “power” that Gelede appeases to; the positive including nurturing and motherly instinct and continued fertility, and the negative having connotations of witchcraft. The celebration, although focused on women, can also be used as a source of protection for the men of the community against evil women.

The source of the Gelede ritual comes from an African legend that references a woman named Yemoja (“The Mother of all the orisa and all living things”) who was not able to become pregnant. Yemoja spoke to an Ifa (Yoruba religious system) oracle, which suggested that she perform a dancing ritual with a wooden mask upon her head that is made of many small figures (including humans and animals). Soon after doing as the oracle said, Yemoja bore two children – a mischevious boy, Efe, and a cheerful girl, Gelede. Efe and Gelede grew up and married, and when they, too, could not bear children, they each consulted Ifa, who provided them with the same advice, and soon they bore children of their own. 

Pertaining to the Gelede masks, the face is covered by a veil, and the masks themselves are placed on the top of the head (more like headdresses), and then paired with a costume that consists of colorful cloth. Specifically with the Gelede mask presented at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (image C1), there are touches of blue and red paint that have slightly faded. The bottom of the mask depicts the face of a woman, meant to depict the “calmness, patience, and ‘coolness'” (Yoruba: Sculpture) of the conventional woman. The top of the mask, in contrast, is much more detail oriented; surrounding the cylindrical shape of the mask are small figures of women, and a few men. The center of the mask depicts a large figure riding a donkey, which is not uncommonly seen in the Gelede ceremonial masks. Babatunde Lawal, the author of the book, The Gèlèdé Spectacle: Art, Gender, and Social Harmony in an African Culture, writes:

“The headdress is to the costume what the head (ori) is to the human body. It is an index of identification and the essence of the masker’s personality as long as he is inside the mask. In spite of the comical representations that often appear on the headdress, the face below the superstructure remains serene, as if stressing the paradox that is life- and the need to live life with special care.”

As women, we find these masks to be a significant and important part of this culture. Growing up in a western culture, we were less exposed to the ideas of the power of women in reference to spirit. The Yoruba culture’s beautiful and inspiring ritual of Gelede awakens a sense of empowerment to women by reminding them that the Mother provides, and she can take away; Mother empathizes, but she can punish.

C1 – Gelede Mask of Yoruba Culture at VMFA

All in all, African masks and headdresses make for an important part of the culture; they bring together a notion of spirituality and togetherness in African rituals and traditions. With these masks come a sense of pride and importance, as well as dignity and hierarchy in the community. The leaders that wear the headdresses do so with an heir of prestige and honor. Reverence follows when one dons these icons of culture and solemnity. Whether it is to show respect for the powerful, or to ward off evil, it is necessary that the proper recognition is given to these cultures where headdresses and masks are concerned. The appropriation of these important cultural pieces is a form of disrespect towards the beliefs and practices of these societies, and often disregards the dignity that these objects hold.


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