The most famous and recognized African art form by Westerners is African masks. African masks are usually created to express a religious idea. Since indigenous African religions are animistic, the masks usually display symbols from nature. In early times, masks were worn mainly in religious ceremonial dances related to the growing of the crops, celebration of births, deaths, and important tribal and secret society ceremonies. Masks were based on human and animal forms, or both. .
Theses masks were considered sacred, and they were locked up when not in use. In those early times, women were not allowed to wear masks and in some cases they weren't even allowed to see them. Some masks were intentionally shocking to scare women away from these ceremonies. Colors were symbolic, for example the color white often symbolized spirits, ghosts, and the supernatural. .
Although African works of art are greatly appreciated it is very hard to preserve them because the people made them out of wood that rots easily. The masks in museums in Europe and North America may only be a few decades old but are already falling apart. Usually, copies of the masks are made so that the form and design will not be lost. .
Masks stand out so much in their society because few portraits were carved or painted. The reason for this is that they believed it was undesirable and lacked humility to make things too realistic. When animals were pictured on masks they had a meaning. Speed was characterized by the antelope, and strength was characterized by the crocodile. The lizard meant life, the tortoise old age; the snake meant swift movement or death. Birds were thought of as intermediaries between the earth and heavens.