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In Africa knowledge is handed down from generation to generation through myths and legends. They are often illustrated by masks which are used as a visual tool. This is, however, only the case of Central Africa and West Africa. In the other regions the population respects the Islamic rule which forbids representing gods, people or animals.

African masks are characterised by a big variety of shapes and materials. They express the animistic concept that all beings and things have a soul and can contain a part of the spirit world. Ancestors and deceased persons or animals and plants represented by masks are the spirits’ mediators on earth. The number of animal masks is particularly high in West Africa. They offer the possibility of representing imaginary or abstract elements without using human features. They symbolise the vital force of nature and of the invisible beings with which man tries to make a pact. Within the framework of animism, initiation rituals are particularly important as they enable the initiated persons to understand the messages transmitted by art and give them the power to make objects “with a soul”. This is where the question of the authenticity of African art objects arises. It cannot be determined on the basis of the age of an object or of its artistic value. We have to take into account the way it is used and to analyse to which degree the ancestral rituals for the making of masks are respected. In Africa each step of the making of a mask is ritualised: from the choice of the materials (wood and sacred materials and/or materials with a certain symbolic) and the colours to their desecration and their destruction. Nothing is left to chance; the mask has a soul, it lives. 

Of course, this does not mean that the aesthetic aspect is trivial; often the power of a mask depends on the care given to its making. Finally it has to be mentioned that African masking traditions are particularly alive and are therefore part of the populations’ daily lives. Mask types are constantly evolving, aesthetic values are changing, influences are growing and only the sacred character of the mask remains the same.