While the specific meanings and use associated with ritual masks vary widely in different cultures, some traits are common to many African cultures. Ritual and ceremonial masks are an essential feature of the traditional culture of the peoples of a part of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Masks used in a traditional context usually have a spiritual and religious meaning and they are used in ritual dances and social and religious events. A special status is attributed to the artists who create masks, and to those that wear them in ceremonies. In many cases, mask-making is an art that is passed on from father to son, along with the knowledge of the symbolic meanings conveyed by each masks. African masks come in all different colors, sizes shapes.
One mask that is very important to the Yoruba people of Nigeria is the Gelede mask. The Yoruba are an ethnic group which is located in southwestern and north-central Nigeria, as well as in the Republic of Benin and Togo. Together, these regions are known as Yorubaland. The Yoruba constitute one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa and the majority of this population is located in Nigeria.
The full ritual of the Gelede is very involved and is held annually during the beginning every new agricultural cycle. The celebration is composed of Efe (the opening night) celebration and Gelede (daytime) celebration. Different masks are worn for each event. Both celebrations feature many ritualized aspects and characters in elaborate costumes, song, dance and performances. This celebration is held annually to honor and placate the powers of the female ancestors and elderly women, and deities.
The Yoruba see the powers of women as being similar to gods or spirits, so much so that it is believed that the powers of women can be for the great benefit of individuals or communities, or they can cause the demise of an entire community. So the Gelede festival is danced exclusively by men, with masks showing male and female roles to celebrate women and mothers.
This is from a recent issue of The Gleaner in Jamaica, Wisconsin.