- The use of masks in African culture dates back to before the Paleolithic period. Since then, masks have reflected tribal culture by figuring prominently in ceremonies, rituals, initiations and celebrations of all types.
- The carving of a mask is considered to be a spiritual act in which the artist first ceremonially purifies himself and then engages in prayer to the ancestors; this is done to ask for guidance from divine forces, which then inhabit the object.
- Generally, each mask represents a spirit of some type. Tribal members believe that the dancer wearing the mask, who enters a trance-like state, is possessed by that spirit. In turn, the spirit uses the possessed to communicate.
- Each tribe or cultural group gives its own significance to the masks it creates. The Bamana people of Mali, for example, represent a certain mythical being by combining aspects of several different animals in one mask.
- Masks used during initiation ceremonies generally depict ancestors. The purpose of communicating with an ancestor can be to gain full acceptance into the tribe.