Looking at African Masks


texture, pattern, African masks, colour, tone, form, visual elements, purpose, reason, smooth, shiny, healthy, earth tones, categories, healthy, scary, proud, dignified, cool, vigour, ability to work.



African masks (at least 2)
newspaper (lots & lots)
wallpaper paste
materials for building up masks(e.g.string,corrugated card, pasta shapes, etc.) varnish



African artists praise a carved figure by saying it 'looks like a human being'. Artists seldom portray particular people, actual animals, or the actual form invisible spirits. Rather, they aim to portray ideas about reality, spiritual or human, and express these ideas through human or animal images.

The lustrously smooth surface of most African figural sculpture, often embellished with decorative scarification, indicates beautiful shining, healthy skin. Figures with rough surfaces and deformities are intended to appear ugly and morally flawed.

The person who is composed behaves as in a measured and rational way; he or she is controlled, proud, dignified and cool.

A youthful appearance connotes vigour, productiveness, fertility and an ability to labour.

Clarity of form and detail, complexity and composition, balance and symmetry, and smoothness of finish are all examples of typical African art. African artist place a high value on fine workmanship and mastery of the medium.

SOURCE:- Susan M. Vogel, African Aesthetics, New York:- Centre for African Art (1986)



Proir to starting this scheme of work, find out as much as can about the artefacts i.e. which country and cultural group they are from.

Introduce the masks to the children. Discuss the purpose of the masks, their place of origin for what purpose they were designed, and the functions they may perform (i.e. for dance, drama, storytelling, ceremonies, war). Discuss the elements of the African aesthetic (see above). Get children to hypothesize and critically evaluate the masks. Get them to make sketches and notes in their sketchbooks.

The next activity entails getting the children to investigate pattern making. Show the masks and African textiles to the children, asking them to pay particular attention to the pattern and shapes that make the artefacts characteristically African. Give the children a range of different media with which to experiment and explore raised surface patterns. These can be attached to thin card to give the children a reference for later work.

Refer the children back to the masks, remind them of the initial discussion on the purposes of these masks. Get the children to brainstorm the purposes and functions of African masks. Show children an example of a mask template (see below). Explain that everyone will be making their own African mask. Display the available resources. Children should identify a purpose for their own mask and then proceed to design it in their sketchbooks identifying the different materials and techniques that they will use. Ensure the children have access to their surface pattern work and artefacts.

Organise the children into pairs. Explain that we will be making the basic structure for our masks.The basic shape will be made by laminating the balloon with at least 5 layers of newspaper. Demonstrate the skills and technique required to apply papier mache to a balloon. Draw the children's attention to the fact that each balloon will make two masks.

Whole class discussion on what we have done so far. Ask the children what they think the next step should be. Key teaching points in the discussion should be: the materials needed; the patterns that occur in African art; the purpose of their masks and the techniques that they plan to use. Model and demonstrate how to use papier mache pulp (this can be made by dissolving toilet paper or kitchen paper with a small amount of water and PVA glue). Ensure that all resources are available. Children are to build their surface patterns onto their basic structure using their original design.

Once the masks are completed and dry, discuss the elements of the African aesthetic as identified above. Give the children a limited palette of natural, earthy tones in reference to the artefacts that you used throughout. Once painted, dry and varnished get the children to reflect upon the whole unit of work.


Once the masks are completed they could be used as stimulus for drama, dance, English, RE, geography , maths, music and PSHE. This would provide the children with a relevant purpose and ownership of their work.

This display shows a selection of possible artefacts that may be used with this unit of work. The masks are from central Africa and the fabrics featured are samples of Kente cloth from Ghana.  
  By Stuart Kennedy, Joanne Palmer, Siobhan Perth and Lucy Pritchard.