Mask carvings are more numerous than the figures, albeit not as well known. There are generally three kinds: face masks, helmet masks (which as the name suggests are worn over the head like a helmet), and body masks, which cover a good part of the dancer's torso and are intended to disguise the dancer's identity from even close ones. The body mask sometimes only covers the torso, and is worn together with a face or helmet mask.
All masks represent spirits or ancestors, and were most powerfully used in initiation ceremonies as expressions of continuity, fear, and morality. They were also used in dances for festive occasions, for instance in harvest celebrations.
Unusually realistic for traditional African art, the helmet masks (mapiko; singular lipiko) are notable for their strong, portrait-like features. Many have real human hair applied in shaved patterns, raised or incised facial scarification, open mouths with bared teeth, large ears or lip-plugs. They are used in the mapiko dance and in other dances. Although both male and female heads can be depicted, female heads are very rare. The dancer breathes and see though a small opening in the mouth.
Mapiko is not just the name given to a mask (usually helmet mask), but also the name of a dance, the name of the terrifying force which performs in it, and also the name given to one of the stages of male initiation, when the initiate is introduced into the secrets of the Mapiko. The masks themselves are made in a secret bush location known as the Mpolo, which women are forbidden to approach. When not in use, the masks are kept in the Mpolo, and were traditionally burned when broken or replaced with new masks.
Human face masks
Animal & spirit face masks
also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle
Planosphere.com - fine art photography