Decorative masks were an important part of the ceremonies practiced by people living throughout Africa. Such ceremonies included initiation rituals for young people to become members of a social group, rituals to enforce a society's rules, and religious occasions. Masks covered a person's face and were designed to represent ancestors or to symbolize mythical beings. Masks were only one element of ceremonial garb, however. With masks, dancers or performers would also wear whole costumes to assume the identity and powers of the spirit, ancestor, or deity represented.
Carved from wood and decorated with grasses, feathers, or animal skins, masks were painted with intricate designs of many colors. Unlike body painting, tattooing, and scarification, masks were designed not to beautify but to look dramatic and imposing. The faces carved on masks often have distorted features. Among the Pende people in the present-day country of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the bulging eyes, giant ears, and long nose of the Kipoko mask symbolized the chief's ability to see, hear, and smell sorcery and evil doings. The mask's small mouth represented the chief's ability to hold his tongue to keep hasty words from leading him into trouble. Although many in Africa have converted to religions such as Christianity, which do not use masked ceremonies, some social groups continue to use masks that resemble those worn by their ancestors thousands of years ago.
Gröning, Karl. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.