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African Masks | Arts & Activities
Dec 2015

African Masks

African Masks

Culture plays an important role in all aspects of art history—defining the era, enhancing techniques, and representing a meaning all its own.

African cultures exhibit unique, exquisite masks with various meanings. The bold abstract designs of African tribal masks have geometrical, as well as symmetrical patterns, which depict the social status, and/or magical or religious powers of the individual.

This same aspect can be used to help students discover their inner strength or reflect on a personal reference. Patterns often form a code of information, while parallel, zigzag, curved, and spiral lines represent planes of the mask’s facial features.

Within this project, students express and communicate an internal meaning of themselves, if so desired. The project is divided into two phases, allowing the student to render a 2-D formation into 3-D, seeing their project take on a different perspective.

Before the actual project begins, students research African masks and create four thumbnail sketches of different styles, representing their own creation and creative design. I discuss with each student individually their thoughts behind their design and, together, select the best thumbnail for the final project.

Phase I is focused on the two-dimensional process, with symmetry and the use of positive and negative space. Students fold an 8.5″ x 11″ paper in half (lengthwise), and draw only one side of the mask, centered toward the fold. Next, they trace back over it, darkening their lines with their pencils. They flip the paper over on the fold and retrace again (over the lines) on the back, causing the pencil lead to leave an impression on the other side of the fold, creating symmetry within their mask.

Students use their completed mask drawings to create the 2-D phase out of construction paper. Students need to select two different colored sheets of construction paper. The background will be a split of the two colors. Retrace only one half of the mask on the fold or edge of one of the colored sheets of construction paper. Before going any farther, have them color one half of their original drawings with colored pencils, using the colors they selected in construction paper, keeping in mind the colors need to alternate for a design pattern. This will allow them to visualize the positive and negative space areas to complete the 2-D assignment.

Using craft knives, students will cut out the sections of their masks, flipping the pieces over on the construction paper to create the other side of the mask. Once all pieces are cut out and aligned correctly, they are glued down in place. Pieces should meet in the middle of the page to represent symmetry of the mask.


1. Jena’s thumbnail sketches. 2. Her symmetrical mask drawing. 3. Her colored drawing, as Jena planned to paint it. 4. Jena’s finished 3-D African mask.



Savannah’s African mask.




LEFT: Crysta’s 2-D African mask. RIGHT: Crysta’s 3-D African mask.



Tyler’s cardboard mask construction, showing the various levels before the papier-mâché was applied.



Tyler planned his color design on paper to guide him when he painted his 3-D mask.



Tyler’s 3-D African mask.

In Phase II, masks are created in 3-D. The original drawings are used again to trace the masks onto cardboard. First, students need a full sheet of corrugated cardboard, slightly larger than the size of their mask, and then they trace the entire mask onto the cardboard.

Students then decide which parts of their mask will be at what level/layer. I have them number their original drawings, starting with the bottom layer as number 1. Ask the students what element of their masks they want to stand out the most—this would be the highest level/layer. They then complete the order from there.

Now the students must build up each level/layer with cardboard. Depending on the layer, students need to trace out the desired shape (from their mask design) onto the cardboard as many times as necessary to reach the preferred height, gluing the pieces together to make one thick layer, then glue it to the main cut-out of the mask. Students will continue the process until all layers/levels are completed. The next step is to put sides on the mask so it sets up off the table, using masking tape to attach sides to mask base.

Now it’s time to start covering the mask with papier-mâché. I prefer using the plaster cloth modeling material available through most arts and crafts catalogs. Students will cut the plaster-impregnated gauze into small strips, dipping in water, removing excess water, and place on mask, smoothing out, filling in the empty spaces within the gauze while it’s still wet.

I require the entire mask to have three layers of papier-mâché, drying completely between each layer. Once all layers are completed use, I recommend using 150-grit sandpaper to smooth out any rough edges on the mask.

Students are now ready to paint. I require them to color the backs of their original drawings how they plan to paint their masks to use as a guide. With acrylic paint, students paint their masks, making sure to stay within the design areas, applying as many coats as necessary to completely cover the white of the papier-mâché.

The final step is to seal the masks with glossy Mod Podge®. I suggest three thin coats, allowing it to dry completely between each application.

All that’s left is to display your students’ art work, putting their 2-D projects beside their 3-D masks.

High-school students will …
• recognize characteristics of African masks.
• identify positive and negative space, and color as elements of art.
• create a design that exhibits symmetry, balance and contrast, with positive and negative space.
• create a 2-D work of art.
• design and construct an original 3-D papier-mâché mask in an African style.
• recognize the mask as an art form used by cultures.

 • Access to Internet for research
• 8.5″ x 11″ copy paper
• Graphite and colored pencils
• Construction paper in variety of colors
• Glue sticks, scissors, craft knives

 • Corrugated cardboard
• Six-inch-wide plaster cloth (cotton gauze impregnated with plaster of Paris)
• Scissors, craft knives
• Masking tape, white glue
• Acrylic paint, paintbrushes
• Mod Podge®
• 150-grit sandpaper


Lori Dudley teaches art at Franklin High School in Franklin, Texas.






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