The Use of Pattern in African Masks

 

Bold pattern, either painted or carved, is a powerful and expressive element in African mask design. Most patterns tend to be geometrical and symmetrical and are used in a variety of ways.

Different geometric patterns are sometimes used to distinguish between male and female masks. Square and triangular checkerboard grids are often carved to decorate sections of a design. A variety of complex braided hairstyles adorn the top of the head.

Some patterns are often used as a form of coded information. Parallel, zigzag, cruciform, curved and spiral lines, representing scarification marks or tattoos, are frequently used to adorn the planes of the mask face. These can denote social status or have magical or religious powers.

Interlacing crosses and geometric forms are often seen as details on African masks. With the spread of the Moslem faith in Africa, some of these designs show an influence of the decorative ideals of Islamic Art.

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An African mask from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

African mask from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
Photo: © Wegman