This is a great question!
These ceremonial masks are not unfamiliar to us and can be seen in various places, from museums to yard sales. During my house search a few years back, I went to a home that had about a dozen of these garish looking masks on a wall in the living room. My agent didn’t know if the masks were real or not but I didn’t care. The sight of them was just plain creepy and I was unable to take a serious interest in the place.
So what’s the story behind these masks? Is there any danger in having them in your home?
First of all, not all African masks are authentic (meaning they were made for and used in rituals). There is absolutely nothing wrong with a mask that was made just for decoration.
The real ones are a different story. For the most part, they are used in African tribal rites such as coming-of-age and spiritual rituals.
As this site explains, “African masks should be seen as part of a ceremonial costume. They are used in religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the good and evil forces in the community. They come to life, possessed by their spirit in the performance of the dance, and are enhanced by both the music and atmosphere of the occasion. Some combine human and animal features to unite man with his natural environment. This bond with nature is of great importance to the African and through the ages masks have always been used to express this relationship.”
This museum explains the masks as “unveiling the secret behind African magic” and states that all important events in the lives of many Africans are accompanied by performances in masks. Some are worn, others are held in front of the face during the dance. They are usually made of wood from a particular tree in accordance with local custom and everything about its construction is accompanied by ritual – even the actual obtaining of the wood from a tree. Other natural materials such as feathers, animal teeth, shells and beads are used to decorate the mask.
“Not just the finished mask, but the whole making of it, is part of a religious ritual with which a number of traditional rules are associated and must be followed by the wood-cutter. The whole work of art is usually done in a secluded place, though this is not an absolute rule. For instance, the Chokwe wood-cutters from Angola make some of their works surrounded and encouraged by their friends. The dark color of the mask is achieved by burning or embrocating with oils.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the object is cursed, but we should not have any objects in our home that have been associated with magic rituals (aka sorcery). They should be sprinkled with holy water, then removed from the house and destroyed (preferably by burning and the ashes scattered in a local stream or creek).
If you are unsure if an African mask is authentic, you can always take it to a local museum where experts will be able to investigate it for you.