Masks

The earliest known representation of a mask comes from the wall painting on the Trois Freres cave in the Ariege region of France, which is dated to c 40,000 BC. The painting appears to depict an upright standing man wearing a horned mask and this figure has been named 'the Sorcerer'.

Masks have been used for many centuries and by many societies for a great variety of human activities, from entertainment to rituals of great significance. They were made from different materials - wood, metal, vegetable fibre, ivory, clay, horn, stone, feathers, beads, leather, fur, paper and cloth. They could be a false face or a helmet placed over the wearer's head.

The necessity and importance of masks to people around the world has not diminished with the passage of time.

Wooden helmet mask

Wooden helmet mask

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Kolam mask

Kolam mask

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Demon mask

Demon mask

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Spirit mask

Spirit mask

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Northwest Coast mask

Northwest Coast mask

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Ekpo Society mask

Ekpo Society mask

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Ekpo Society mask

Ekpo Society mask

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Wooden mask

Wooden mask

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Ekpo Society mask

Ekpo Society mask

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Wooden helmet mask

Image: BELUM.C384.1947 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C384.1947 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Mende people, Sierra Leone, Africa. Mid-19th century

Masks such as this are known as bundu masks named after the enclosure where girls are kept during initiation into the Sande society. The girls live a in a camp outside the village for about three years where they learn about marriage, domestic life, employment, music and religion. The masks are worn by female senior members of the society. This is unusual in Africa where masqueraders are usually men and the masks are carved by men.

This mask was donated by the executors of Lieut. Col. Robert J. J. Berry who served in Sierra Leone in the mid-19th century.

 

Kolam mask

Image: BELUM.C1910.57 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C1910.57 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Sri Lanka. Mid-19th century.

Painted wooden mask worn in Kolam which is a musical dance drama of rural Sri Lanka. The performers wear masks and dance, mime and declaim stories ranging from village scenes to Hindu myths.

Naga Rasa is the snake demon representing the power of snake poison.

This mask was donated in 1856 by Sir James Emerson Tennent who was Civil Secretary to the government of Sri Lanka from 1845-1850.

 

Demon mask

Image: BELUM.C195.1949 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C195.1949 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Sri Lanka. Mid-19th century

This grotesque painted wooden mask represents one of eighteen diseases.

Demon masks are still used in healing rituals in the southern part of the Sri Lanka. The purpose of the cure is a performance where the evil demon of the disease is driven away from the patient, although other remedies are also administered.

 

Spirit mask

Image: BELUM.C141a.1940 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C141a.1940 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Southern Nigeria, Africa
Mid-20th century

Not all masks were designed to be worn. Some such as this small painted wooden mask represents a divine, or ancestor, spirit and was hung on the wall to provide a comfortable resting place for the visiting spirit at ceremonies.

This mask was donated by Mrs F. A. Laughton.

 

Northwest Coast mask

Image: BELUM.C103.1952 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C103.1952 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Northern Kwaikiutl, northwest America. Mid-19th century

This painted wooden mask may represent a shaman in a trance and would have been worn at potlaches or feasts by peoples of the northwest coast of America. Such masks were worn to celebrate births, naming ceremonies, marriages and commemorations of important chiefs. The male performer would have been completely covered with a bark and cloth costume.

 

Ekpo Society mask

Image: BELUM.C41.1980 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C41.1980 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Ibo people, Cross River, Nigeria, Africa. Early 20th century

The higher ranks of the Ekpo society were known as the Diviner's Cult and its members wore head-rings (Idiong) as an indication of their high status.

This wooden mask shows the head ring. Masks of dark form are called Idiok and represents restless ghosts.

Idiong head rings could be made from various materials such as leather covered reeds or leopard skin. The leopard skin head ring indicates the hightest status.

This mask and head rings were donated by the Qua Ibo Mission.

 

Ekpo Society mask

Image: BELUM.C40.1980 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C40.1980 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Ibo people, Cross River, Nigeria, Africa. Early 20th century

This Expo Society mask may represent a European. The Qua Ibo Mission, founded in 1887 in East Belfast by Rev. Samuel Bill, established a mission in the area which continues to this day and assists in the staffing of schools, colleges and hospitals. European faces would have been familiar.

This mask was donated by the Qua Ibo Mission.

 

Wooden mask

Image: BELUM.C2.1987 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C2.1987 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Dan people, Ivory Coast, Africa. Early 20th century

This example is an unpainted wooden mask with a naturalistic rendition of the human face. The round eyes are unusual as narrow, elongated eye apertures are the norm. This mask may be associated with the poro male society.

 

Ekpo Society mask

Image: BELUM.C1.1980 © National Museums Northern Ireland
BELUM.C1.1980 © National Museums Northern Ireland

Ibo people, Cross River, Nigeria, Africa
Early 20th century

A large wooden mask with woven fibre covering at the back. It has horns and a head ring at the top. The twisted features may represent the gangosa demon which causes facial paralysis. The Expo Society of west Africa was an influential and prestigious men's association and was a powerful political, social and religious influence. There were six or seven ranks into which its members were divided according to merit and standing in the community. Its members wore special masks and costumes during ceremonies at the yam harvest. This mask is called idiok which means 'mask of dark form' and represent restless ghosts.

This mask was donated by the Qua Ibo Mission.