African masks represent the spirit that the wearer is trying to contact or the emotions of the person attempting to initiate the contact. These masks are usually worn as part of a ritual or ceremony. History of Masks notes that masks can be used to represent animal spirits, ancestors or mythological heroes.
Artisans create African masks out of pottery, wood, cloth and metals, such as copper and bronze. Makers may also choose to add detail using such natural materials as seashells or animal hairs, teeth, bones or feathers. The masks often take on the countenance of a person or animal.
According to Contemporary African Art, the masks are used as a part of performance art. Wearers of the masks can be chosen on the basis of certain personality traits, characteristics or initiation rites they have successfully passed.
African mask makers are often revered in their villages because it is believed they have contact with the spirit world, according to History of Masks. These artisans are required to undergo several years of apprenticeship that includes carving training and gaining spiritual and symbolic knowledge, according to Contemporary African Art. The craft of creating masks can be passed down to other generations of the same family.