Western Africans wear masks to avert evil, transmit tribal lore, initiate the young into adulthood, and summon the spirits of the dead. During a procession, dance, or ceremony, the mask becomes alive, subordinating the wearer to its spirit.
The tradition of wearing masks - a face covering - goes back to the dawn of human history.
We can imagine today's use of masks relating to-
- a desire to transform into a favorite creature to honor and gain its attributes,
- to evoke a feeling of fright or comfort,
- to disquise our identity from real or imagined enemies,
- and as protective surgical, gas masks or sun glasses for today's evil spirits.
And who hasn't made faces in a mirror or laughed as the cat bristled its fur, arched its back and attacked that scary animal in the mirror?
We have many events and special occassions to wear a mask- like Mardi Gras (a carnival prior to Lent) or on Halloween (the evening before All Saint's Day). Consider a 4th of July without the Uncle Sam character or Christmas without Santa Claus.
The word mask is related to the French masque, Italian maschera, Spanish másquera, Arabic Maskharah (jester or man in masquerade) and Latin mascus (ghost) and persona, as in a role in a play. (see Carl Jung for the psychological development of persona.)
Masks are made from many different materials - paper, wood, plaster, plastic, papier-mâché (French for ‘chewed up paper’), even stone like these ancient Greek comedy / tragedy masks representing dramatic presentations - as each culture responses with the resources in their environment to create masks that uniquely express their situation.
Suggestions for introducing masks, mask making and directions for several simple masks:
1- The first step is to consider reasons people wear masks (see above) so you can faciliate an age appropriate discussion on masks with your students, parents and aides. Masks can be elaborate, covering the entire face - or they might be an paper eyeband cut with eye slots.
2 - Prep your environment to get the creative juices flowing -
- Display masks - your mask in particular * - everyone will be interested in your secret personality- are you a wanna-be lion(ess)?, a spaceperson?, or a __________???? and create a gallery of masks from garage sales, friends, family, along with mask posters and world celebrations posters.
Don't limit the display or lesson to the holidays associated with masks- a unit on Native Americans could show Northwest Coastal tribal masks and face painting; a study of Japan could look at NOH masks, or the comedy/tragedy masks for Greece and theatre; study African masks and how European artists were inspired.
- include examples of surgical masks, catcher's mask, a picture of a raccoon, Zorro, the Lone Ranger.....
- Hang a mirror - ideas for mask-making can come from face-making - lifting the corner of the eyes is not just something children do to see a change in appearance.
3 - Gather basic mask making materials -
- Foundations for simple and inexpensive masks can be made from heavy paper (even a bag), tag, or railroad board, and decorated with easily found items and scraps - something every elementary and art teacher can relate to!
- colorful construction and tissue paper, pencils, crayons, non toxic markers, paint, paintbrushes, containers for water, scissors, stapler, hole punch, tape (regular, masking, double sided) glue, string or elastic, found objects.
- All of the new materials and tools created for scrapbooking would be source of excellent decorative techniques (and if you can get those scrapbookers to let go of some of their scraps, more power to you!)
- The expanse of "mess" is dependent on the technique chosen - it's always a good idea to have newspapers to protect table or counters, containers for newly created scraps, and someplace to put wet mask(s).
4 - Be sure to practice the mask making technique you will be using with students by making a mask for yourself -
- Making a mask with the materials available in your classroom is the best way to discover -
- where construction problems and techniques might frustrate your students and how to eliminate problems.
- how many extra hands could be helpful with such things as locating where the eye, nose and mouth holes are cut and best placement for the string or elastic. While size of the mask could be large compared to the wearer, placement of holes to see, speak clearly and wear comfortably, need to conform to the size of the wearer.
The most basic mask foundation is plain a band of stiff paper around the head and secured with staple and tape. If the band is wide enough it can cover the eyes requiring a triange on the lower edge to accomodate the nose, and eye holes. The mask can be built up and down to enlarge the mask "face" area by glueing or taping paper shapes the foundation band. - Stiff triangles to the top could be a crown, or cut spirals for "curls" around the back. To insure a band foundation stays put include extra bands across the top of the head to create a paper helmet.
HINT: always add a bit of masking tape or glue a small piece of paper over staples so they don't inadvertantly scratch a cheek or catch in hair.
Another simple mask foundation is an oval shape of light board or stiff paper.
Sketch the oval first, cut out. Snips can be made at the top, bottom and/or sides of the oval, when the paper is folded across itself at these snips and secured with stables or glue, the mask can gain some dimension.
Plan where the eyes, nose, mouth features will be placed, and where to locate the holes to see, breathe and speak will be cut. Sometimes the mask features will be in the same place as the functional holes, but not always. Think about ways to disguise the functional holes if they don't fit with the design.
See AllSpecies.org for excellent Mask Making directions for plaster cast tape face masks, wire frame headresses, cardboard frame headdresses and paper masks and headpieces.
Suggestions for followup-
Of course you can have a party, celebration or play! If the mask-making last several sessions have the mask-makers think about stories that would include the character of their masks and interacting with other masks.
Another suggestion that works well with older children and adults is an opening about how we are human together, or the old adage about walking in someone else's shoes. Have several people do the plaster cast tape masks (see the link above) and once the masks are hard, try on someone else's mask. This happened in one of my classes years ago - quite by accident as the kids spontaneously wanted to try on each other's masks - the dialogue was wonderful.