The objects in this case might seem whole and complete, but an argument could be made that they are no more than fragments of the larger artistic and ritual traditions of which they were originally part. Whether used in initiation ceremonies or during funerary rites, masks were always part of a performance in which music, dance, motion, costume, sound, smell, and the play of light and shadow all contributed to the overall effect. The multi-sensory spectacles that are masquerades include the architecture and physical space of the village, the spectacle of story and music, the scenes and steps of the performance, and the active participation of the audience.
Masquerade performances can serve a variety of functions in African cultures. They might reinforce social norms and moral ideals, as in the case of the Kuba mask called “Ngaady Mwaash,” a female mask whose fluid gestures and graceful performance style form a stark contrast to the aggressive style and flamboyant leg and torso movements of her male counterpart. The masks and masquerades of the culturally, ethnically, and politically diverse Igala state in Nigeria, on the other hand, represent the spiritual relationship among living members of the community and the ancestors, while also evoking the connection between the monarchy and the indigenous population. In contemporary society masks have also acquired new meanings as ethnic symbols. Whether alluding to social roles or moral and religious truths, masquerading performances also delight and entertain their audiences; in new global contexts many of them even do so as revenue-generating practices performed for tourists.