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African Tribal Masks

African Banda Tribal Mask, courtesy Brooklyn Museum

African masks are objects connected to culture. The masks were worn often with colorful costumes in ceremonial dances which were performed for specific, often religious, always spiritual, purposes tied to the everyday life of the tribe. They were also worn for almost all important events of life, such as birth, death, coming of age, and marriage. Because of the tribe's beliefs that humans and animals and nature are all important parts of the same spirit world, they often combine animal and human forms in masks and are said to have magical powers.

African masks were created by an experienced tribal craftsman and the craft was handed down from generation to generation of craftsmen.These were made to be useable objects, not just something nice to look at! Some masks were six feet long, made of wood, and often worn on top of the head. Masks were often painted in colors including red, white, black, and blue. Wood was the most common material for African masks, but clay, ivory, metal and bone are also used. Some masks were even decorated with beads, fibers, and shells. By recreating the experience of a mask maker the student can gain knowledge of the beliefs, rituals and customs of the tribes of Africa.

The Brooklyn Museum of Art has some more information on African masks, as well as an audio resource.

Questions to Ask

What is this object? What does it look like? What is it made out of?

Do you see both the human and animal parts in this mask?

What colors and design do you see? How many different designs do you find?

Do you think that the person who made this object made it to be art or for another purpose? What purpose do you think it was made for?

Why do you think people from other cultures use masks?

Why do we use masks in our culture?

What ceremonies do we have? Example: wedding

Activities for the Classroom

The Art Institute has a Mask Maker online activity. Click here, then select Play With Art, then the animal icon to get to the Mask Maker. There is also details on the meaning of the animals represented on a mask.

For more background and kid friendly ideas: books located in kid section at AHML are "The Art of African Masks: exploring cultural traditions" by Carol Finley, and "Can you spot the leopard? African Masks" by Christine Stelzig.

Play a CD with African music in the background.

Perform a ritual with the kids, for example their transition from crawling babies to Kindergarteners: Play upbeat African music. Let them crawl behind you in a line, then one by one get a turn to prove they can print their initials, after writing they can stand up and dance back to the rug. If there is time, they can each design a mask which they can use in the ritual.

Have each student think of a character (superhero) that gets special powers when he or she puts on a mask or costume and have them draw a picture of the character. Or have them make a mask depicting an animal with special powers.

Talk about wearing masks at Halloween, at a fancy dress up ball, or as a bandit in the old Wild West. Bring in examples of these types of masks for the children to pass around. Then have them draw a picture of themselves wearing their favorite kind of mask. Talk about whey they chose the mask that they did and how they feel dressed up. Do they feel like a different person or themselves?

Using brown construction paper, burlap, or a mask template, have the students design their own 'African mask'. Provide crayons, colored pencils or paints in the colors used in the original masks. Have the students then cut the mask out and use string to tie.

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