Masks assume a variety of roles and they are present in every society in one form or another. Masks are worn primarily as part of a costume or they can be used as a method of defence. The primary purpose of the masking tradition is to hide the wearer’s identity. This often provides an anonymity that allows the wearer to transform and change their identity, even assume a completely new persona.

This process is for the benefit of one’s self and others, with masks playing a distinct role in performance and ritual.  The changes are not a separate phenomenon but also, to an extent, reflect humanity’s desire and ability to transform and adapt.  It can also be thought of as a method of covering one’s physical identity in order to display a separate part of themselves.  This may be through the channelling of spirits or in modern fiction such as superheroes, both of which require the concealing of an outer identity to allow a part of their personality to show through.  Or, in the case of villains, hiding one’s true purpose.


The idea of transforming oneself into another self is one that has gripped humanity in desire and fear for a very long time.  When someone’s ‘true’ identity is concealed we are naturally fearful of the new identity being portrayed through costume. This applies even more so to the ritual use of masks where a supernatural being is present through the mask.

Above: Mukyeem mask, Kuba, Democratic Republic of Congo (RAMM 118/1993)
Coming of age ceremonies are just one of the many rituals that involve masks. Masks resume their role of transforming an individual when used in rituals as they often allow the wearer the ability to change into a representation of the spirits being honoured during these rituals.  This can be seen in the mukyeem mask of the Kuba above.   This mask is used to represent mythological characters, specifically the mythical ancestor Woot.

This process seems foreign and strange for Europeans to understand, and therefore has come under fire as a primitive practice. However, we forget that this is a process that results in the wearer undergoing a change to connect with a higher power. This is something that almost every society has experienced and which includes the ancient Romans and Greeks, classical civilisations considered to be the foundation of Western society.  This notion of masks and costumes as foreign or relating to ignorance and the superstitious has led to a serious decline in their presence and their use in rituals within Oceania from the period of European contact.

Chief mourner’s costume

Chief Mourner’s costume, TahitiFigure 1: Chief Mourner’s costume, Tahiti. (RAMM, E1776 – E1778)

Here (Figure 1) we have a rare example of a Polynesian costume that has survived 200 years of European contact. This particular costume was worn on funerary occasions. The face of the wearer is deliberately obscured and their body is exaggerated with the intention of causing fear and respect within the community for the recently deceased chief. Visitors can see this costume in the World Cultures gallery.

The wearing and making of masks, especially in prehistoric times, is an area dominated by men with very few women being involved in these activities.  Men were the traditional hunters and the masks were used in rituals and festivals served to celebrate or protect the hunt. Therefore the idea of a male-controlled environment has continued to this day. This can be seen in modern theatre with men assuming women’s roles in plays, both historically and in present day.

Female roles

Female roles that require these masks are therefore portrayed from the eyes of men with 3 main roles being emphasised: the maiden, the mother and the crone.  These can be seen in many cultures, especially in coming of age ceremonies for men and women, where it may be expected that women would be portrayed in a separate light. Even in women’s societies, such as those found in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the masks are made by men. The main difference is that they are owned and used by women which is rarely seen elsewhere.

Masks also play an indispensable role in conflict and sport. These masks are for defensive and offensive purposes. In most modern sports we can often find at least one member wearing a defensive mask, for example in ice hockey. Masks are also used to not only conceal one’s identity but to also promote one’s performance, take Mexican wrestling, for example.

Like the face guards on samurai armour, sport masks are designed to look intimidating, with many players customising their masks to demonstrate their previous injuries in the sport or to show their team affiliation. Many groups wear masks in battle or during execution to intimidate their enemy or those receiving punishment.

Ndungu costume

Ndungu mask and costume, Democratic Republic of CongoFigure 2: Ndungu mask and costume, Democratic Republic of Congo (RAMM 9/1889/43)

In the collection here at the RAMM we have a janus-mask worn by a ritual specialist called an nganga. It originates from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa and was worn as an entire costume for maximum impact (Figure 3). This Ndungu costume is worn by the nganga to cross boundaries. He is a terrifying figure with the means of moving in both the real and ancestral worlds. This example was acquired by ivory and rubber trader Richard E. Dennett.

Masks worn in conflict are used both to intimidate their opponents but also to protect the wearer throughout the conflict. These can be seen everywhere, whether the opponent be human in a battle, such as the metallic helmet of a knight, or the elements in the case of astronauts.