African art is more "conceptual" than perceptual. It usually conveys ideas rather than describes the visible world. This is why a mask is often a composite, combining aspects of several things, animals for instance, but not resembling any specific thing. African masks can represent ancestors, spiritual figures, and/or mythological characters. To wear a mask and its associated costume is to conceal one's own identity in the guise of another. Whether this other is an ancestor, a spirit or anything else, the ceremony marks a time of transition for its wearer since he or she takes on the identity of the mask. Masks are worn either as facemasks to cover the face or as helmets to partially cover the head or as crests to rest upon the head. Masks are made of many different materials of which wood is the most common.
This unit is designed to introduce middle school or high school students to aspects of African cultures through the study of masks in the initiation ceremonies, namely in French speaking black Africa. The unit can be used in French classes levels 3, 4, or 5, African literature, Art history class, African American literature or World History class. The time needed to teach this unit is between three to five weeks, depending on the constraints of the curriculum.
The African mask is not an accessory made for theatrical purposes. The name of the mask also refers to the name of the dance that it performs. In Africa, the "mask" incorporates four different inseparable components: it is not only the sculpted object, usually from wood, that is commonly called "mask", but it is also the man wearing it, the costume worn by this man and the spirit or ancestor represented. Furthermore, the "mask" refers to the performed dance itself. In the African belief, the mask is a sacred being, a spirit that uses the body of a man to manifest itself.
In order to fully understand African masks, one needs to study African belief systems. There are several ways of viewing the world that shape the making of masks. One is syncretism, the "reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief especially with partial success or heterogeneous result" (The American Heritage Dictionary). For example, Islam has been in Black Africa since the ninth century. It does not permit any kind of personification, yet the African carver has managed to reconcile this view with the tradition of mask making. One of the characteristics of African masks is abstraction. The fact that the carver could not reproduce images may have led to this characteristic.
Another important belief that shapes African thinking is totemism. A totem is "an animal, plant or natural object serving among certain tribal or traditional peoples as the emblem of a clan or family and sometimes revered as its founder, ancestor or guardian" (idem). Masks often play a central role in totemic rituals.
A third aspect that influences the creation of masks is the African concept of the origin of the universe. These different aspects are apparent in the different types of African masks.