The Meaning of Traditional Masks in Africa


The transformation of an object, taken out of its element and relocated in a new, foreign environment, sometimes results in its demise.  I frequently experience that situation when transplanting delicate tomato plants from their plastic containers to the still-cold dirt in the garden bed.  Sometimes the new surroundings alter the composition of the resettled object. 

When Mimi Girma, from Ethiopia, brought a mask from Bourkina Faso, she carried a sacred object used in ritual to the United States, but pulling it from its roots in no way lead to a diminished artifact.  "Masks that are used in Africa are a part of rituals that take place within a specific area or village," Mimi said.  "They are used to celebrate such events as a birth or festivals for harvest. They are to honor ancestors who’ve come before us or to celebrate our children, to celebrate fertility or to pray for fertility, to honor nature around us," Girma explained. "The masks are used for different purposes that are intertwined with our existence.  So every rite of passage, every aspect of our lifetime is intertwined," said Girma.

But as I looked up at the wall in the Mira Gallery, located at El Colegio in Minneapolis, I saw a large piece of wood, shaped like the bottom of a bathtub.  The huge object, hung by nails against the wall, also featured a circular cutout at the top.  Earthen pigments had been used to dye a simple pattern on it’s face. 

Mimi Girma had just told me this was a mask, but there’s no way someone could parade around wearing this thing pretending to be at the Mardi Gras carnival.  Girma politely pointed out the three small holes, two eyes, one mouth.  "It’s not worn like a mask at Mardi Gras.  It’s a very sacred ritual.  In some traditions you would not get to see who is behind this mask," Girma explained.  "It’s basically something higher than our common humanity.  It is to remind ourselves that our connectedness to one another is dictated by our connectedness to a higher being.  It is to remember that this is powerful and we’re connected to this that is powerful; we’re a part of that,"  said Girma.

So it’s facilitating the connectedness, I said. 

"Oh absolutely.  There is a connectedness with creation, where we come from, our education, our respect.  There’s a direct line with the connectedness of creation," Girma assured me.  "So you pay your honor, you pay your homage, you pay the respect that you have with absolute reverence, absolute reverence for that which is unseen.  This (mask) is a way of bringing the power that is unseen into the realm of reality…to continue the customs, to teach and to, you could say to worship, but that’s not exactly the word, but it is coming together in a belief system that helps you honor who you are in your connectedness," clarified Girma

And yet, here in Minneapolis, I’m looking at a collection of artwork, one of over eighty pieces and it included a sacred, ritual object.  "This mask was an original functional piece and it was not made for our space.  It is now a piece of art, but not originally," said Girma.  "For us, art comes out of functional, every day experience.  It becomes art when taken out of its element."


  • Susan is based in Minneapolis and reports on general assignments for Mshale with a focus on entertainment. In addition to reporting, she is also a writer, poet, teacher and coach.

About Susan Budig

Susan is based in Minneapolis and reports on general assignments for Mshale with a focus on entertainment. In addition to reporting, she is also a writer, poet, teacher and coach.

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