2. Studying and making masks

Traditional African masks were considered to be crucial objects because they played the essential role of the spirits in the African belief system. The original intent in creating an African mask was to create it for a particular ceremony or societal ritual. Unlike the West European concept in which a mask is considered to be the means of ‘representing’ a spirit, traditional masks in Africa were understood to be where a spirit is ‘created’. In other words, when a person wears the mask, along with a costume that conceals them from head to foot, the masked person actually ‘becomes’ the figure the disguise is intended to represent, bringing it to life through their gestures, sounds, activities, and often their possessed state.

In Case Study 2, a teacher uses group work to promote her pupils’ thinking skills and allow them to share their ideas about the purposes of different masks. In Activity 2, your pupils will make their own masks, having thought about questions such as those raised in the case study.

Case Study 2: Exploring symbols and meaning in traditional African masks

Josephine Chileshe is an art teacher in Lusaka Province, Zambia. She has decided to explore traditional African masks with three broad outcomes in mind:

  1. To reflect on shared uses and experiences of artwork across Africa.
  2. To explore how symbols in a piece of artwork convey particular meanings in a cultural context.
  3. To help her pupils make their own masks.

She plans to use about two double-period art lessons to achieve these outcomes.

Josephine starts by presenting her class with picture books and magazines that contain images of traditional masks from all over Sub-Saharan Africa. (See Resource 3: An African mask for an example.)

She asks the class, in groups, to explore some of the books together and to draw out common uses of masks in social life across different cultural contexts. Each group prepares a list of ritual and cultural functions of African masks.

Josephine will go on to introduce a specific mask – a ngaadi a mwaah mask of the ancient Bakuba people of the Congo, which has many highly stylised features associated with rituals and the symbolism of power. She will draw attention to important symbols in the mask. She will then give her pupils time to design and make their own symbolic masks.

Activity 2: Creating masks to represent emotions and social messages

Before the lesson, gather together a range of picture books and magazines that contain images of traditional African masks from various places and, if possible, some examples of real local masks.

  • Tell pupils to look through the resources you have gathered for ideas for their own masks.
  • As they plan their masks, pupils need to think what they wish their masks to convey. Remind them that they need to think about:
    • facial expressions;
    • images or symbols they might use;
    • how to capture feelings;
    • colour.
  • Ask them to design their own masks on a small piece of recycled paper/card first, before making either a larger picture of their mask or making a model out of card.
  • You will have to allow several art periods for this work.
  • Display the finished masks for all to see and invite other classes to see the masks.

1. Using brainstorming to think about local art

3. Creating an informative exhibition