This mukudj mask represents the idealized female ancestor.

African masks are usually worn by men -- and only rarely by women -- during ritual ceremonies related to life events such death. They can represent many things; spirits of animals, people or ideas; ancestors, whether male or female; the power and history of ruler-ship; and provide protection from spirits, members of the community or the deceased. It's important to note that a mask is not complete without its accompanying costume.


Some masks represent spirits, either of animals, humans or abstract spirits with no specific form. A classic example are the spirit masks worn by the Bwa people of Burkina Faso during initiation ceremonies. Once girls and boys reach puberty, they are "kidnapped" and taken away from the community, where they are taught the meaning of each mask. The girls and boys are then taught the songs and dances for the spirits before they return to their communities to demonstrate their knowledge in a public ceremony.


Images of ancestors can also be a part of initiation ceremonies. The Yaka people of Angola wear Ndeemba masks during male initiation ceremonies that represent the Yaka founders. The masks' design contains symbols of the solar and lunar cycles, as well as symbols of fertility, suggesting that virility is tied to nature and passed down from generation to generation. In the Mende culture of Sierra Leone, girls are initiated into womanhood with an ancestral mask called a nowo, which represents an idealized form of female beauty emerging from a chrysalis like a butterfly.


Leaders of African tribes often wear masks of former rulers during ritual ceremonies as symbols of their own authority. These can be full-face masks, such as the moshambwooy masks of the Kuba Kingdom that represent Woot, the person who founded the ruling dynasty of the Kuba, or small pendant masks worn around the neck or from a belt. One of the most famous examples of the latter is the "Queen Mother Pendant Mask" of the Edo people, which represents Idia, the mother of one of Benin's greatest kings, Esigie. During ceremonies it may have been filled with medicine to protect the king from spirits .


Masks can also serve in a protective capacity by administering community justice. The Anang Ibibio people of Nigeria use an Ekpo mask in such cases. The Ekpo mask has many characteristics the Ibibio find frightening or repulsive, such as matte skin and uneven teeth. When the mask is worn in a ceremony to punish transgressors, it is the mask that is acting, not the person wearing it, so that they are symbolically carrying out the justice of the entire community and not merely acting on their own. Masks can also scare away the deceased or malevolent spirits during funeral rights. Such is the case with wabele masks, belonging to the Senufo people of the Côte d'Ivoire.