As part of a schoolwide initiative to study western Africa, I wanted to plan an exploration of African masks that not only highlighted the variety and beauty of the art form, but also opened my students’ eyes to the perspectives and experiences of the African people.
Unlike the art of the West, African art is a functional and necessary part of everyday life. Africans don’t typically think of masks as works of art but as a vital part of a costume for a social or religious ritual. By examining the masks of Africa and the ceremonies they were used for, we can begin to understand how these people communicate with the mystical spirit world.
EXPLORING WEST AFRICA. After examining a map, we identified the countries of Ghana, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast in western Africa. Our campus implemented a unit on western Africa that connected all subject areas to provide an in-depth glimpse into this fascinating culture. For the visual art portion of this unit, I chose to focus on the masks of the region. African masks are considered one of the greatest works of art to come from Africa and are used as part of a ceremonial costume. They are used in religious and social events to represent the spirits of ancestors or to control the good and evil forces in the community. They come to life, possessed by their spirit in the performance of the dance, and are enhanced by both the music and atmosphere of the occasion. Some combine human and animal features to unite man with his natural environment. This bond with nature is of great importance to the African and, through the ages, masks have always been used to express this relationship.
FINDING MEANING. As students begin to create a sketch for their mask, remind them to focus on a meaning. Everything from the shape of the mask, the patterns, textures and materials are used to create a meaning for the mask so the person who wears it will transform during the ceremony. I like to provide students with many examples of different masks so they can generate ideas easily and effectively. I required students to create a minimum of three mask designs that used the above-mentioned elements of art to create a mask with meaning.
DRAWING THE MASK. Students began by folding a 12″ x 12″ sheet of white drawing paper in half. I demonstrate for the students how to draw half of the mask centered from the fold. I use the saying “Draw it light until it’s right” so students have an easier time laying out their design. Once it is “right”, students trace over half the mask to make sure the lines are very dark with the pencil lead.
We then folded the paper in half and rubbed over the drawing with the handle of a pair of scissors. The lead will transfer to the other half of the paper creating a perfectly symmetrical and balanced mask. The paper is then opened and all the lines are retraced to become more visible.
After the mask is drawn, the next step is to color with oil pastels. I begin with a demonstration of how to properly use oil pastels so the masks don’t end up looking like a typical crayon coloring. Some of the techniques I show the students are color blending with heavy and light pressure, color mixing, and creating gradations from one color to an analogous color. I have sheets of scrap paper ready so students can practice and become fully confident before proceeding to the final mask.
I also like to review color schemes with the class so everyone is aware of how to use color to be more effective and successful. I allow my students to color however they want with the techniques and methods I have shown them. The only requirement is that they must keep the mask symmetrical with their use of color—so whatever is done on one side must be repeated on the other.
SCRATCHING THE SURFACE. Sgraffito is a technique mainly used to decorate pottery. A glaze is applied and using a sharp tool, you can scratch away the glaze to create a pattern or texture on the surface. We applied this same technique to the mask designs. Once a mask is fully colored, students could take a wood stylus and carve patterns into the different facial features of the mask.
The designs of African masks are usually meant to portray a religious or social belief; the designs can be meant to celebrate beauty, power, courage, health or nobility. Because of this meaning, lines and shapes should be arranged symmetrically to evoke that quality. African masks are also highly textured—the detail and finish of a mask usually has a meaning as well. For an example, I showed students a mask that represented beauty and had a very smooth and shiny surface.
EVALUATION. The connection of African masks to dance and meaning can create some great opportunities for writing or performances. Check in with your theater or language arts teachers and see if some connections can be made. If not, you can have students write about their classmate’s masks and the meanings they believe are trying to be communicated. Ask questions like “What message does the artwork send?” or “How do the visual qualities of the mask contribute to the meaning and message of the artwork?”
This project checks all the boxes for a great cultural lesson; covers the National Art Standards, it’s cross-curricular, and students will LOVE the fun sgraffito technique on their masks. Students will gain a powerful and honest view of African culture that will give the masks a deeper meaning and make this a truly memorable experience!
Middle school students will …
• recognize and appreciate the unique characteristics and meanings of African masks.
• learn about and gain an appreciation for the cultures of West Africa through the study of their masks.
• create an African style mask that shows an understanding of balance, pattern and texture.
• develop and improve oil pastel and sgraffito techniques.
NATIONAL ART STANDARDS
• Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
• Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
• Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
• Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.
• Examples or photos of African masks
• 12″ x 12″ white drawing paper
• Pencils and sketch paper
• Oil pastels and wood stylus sticks
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Matt Mazur is an elementary and middle school art teacher at Dealey Montessori Vanguard and International Academy in Dallas, Texas.
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