Man’s basic concern for his vitality, as well as his aim to ensure or increase fertility, underlies many rituals and ceremonies in Africa in which masks, accompanied by music and dance, have a decisive role. Whether thanking benevolent spirits for a rich harvest, invoking water spirits essential for timely rain, or dispersing the spirits or souls of the dead – it is the mask itself which through its activity will mobilize the spirits. A mask’s activity, the appropriate movements and talent of its wearer, will determine the degree of the masked ritual’s success.
Aside from the religious, masks have an important social role. In certain communities, such as the Dan and Gere, masks are exclusively socio-religious and in large replace the ancestral and other figures which dominate the material culture of other ethnic groups of West Africa. Masks play a crucial role in activities relating to bringing justice to offenders of laws, which the given group proscribes, as well as ceremonies relating to collecting taxes, decisions on going into battle, etc.
Masks are also a form of protection for fishermen, hunters, blacksmiths and travellers. Masks are essential to many cults – they are a mediator in the attempt of the community to maintain order, good neighbourly relations; masks play a significant role in the right upbringing of children and their preparation for initiation rites.
Masks are symbols of the wisdom of spirits, their positive and negative powers. The striking variety of ideas and purposes linked to masks has resulted in diverse artistic outcomes created by the numerous groups inhabiting the vast continent. Differences in mask styles reflect differences in world views, myths, and the collective consciousness of the broader community. However, they also reflect the vision of the individual artist who is inspired by his surroundings and his tribe’s mythology.