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African masks are dramatic portraits of spirit beings, departed ancestors, and invisible powers of social control. Each mask is created according to a traditional style, and worn by a trained performer. The art of mask-making, and the knowledge of symbolic meaning, is generally passed down from father to son.
Ritual masks allow the wearer to imagine the spirit represented by the mask (generally deceased relatives or other ethereal, non physical entity), will manifest through the dance or ritual and communicate to the person wearing the mask. Ritual mask are usually accompanied by costumes, dances and other ritual processes.
The style, design and meanings of African masks are unique to each tribe. African masks may a human face shape or take on the persona of an animal head. An animal mask may be used, for instance, to allow the mask-wearer to speak to animals themselves. Animal face-masks (primarily crocodiles, hawks and buffalo) seem to be the most abundant or popular mask type since these are thought to connect people with the spirit world.
Africa mask art forms date back to Paleolithic times.
Some African masks are full-body costumes, worn originally as part of elaborate celebrations with costumed dancers, vibrant music, and stylized dances.