How to make your own African-style mask

How to make your own African-style mask

In African culture, masks play an important part in ceremonies and rituals. Designing and making your own mask can be a fun way to learn a little about African culture and history—not to mention that you’ll end up with a one-of-a-kind piece of papier-mache artwork, as well!

Spend a few minutes researching African masks online, and you will discover that the styles and varieties of these masks are endless: you can find masks made of clay, metal, and wood, masks painted in arrays of bright colors, masks decorated with natural tones, masks embellished with feathers, grass, straw, and beads, and masks left unadorned. In many cultures, color and decorative items, like the feathers and straw, were or are used in rituals and ceremonies to appeal to gods, like to bring rain, or to frighten away or distract evil spirits. Many of the masks also display exaggerated eyebrows, noses, lips, and other facial features. Abstracted and distorted features are common in ceremonial costumes in many cultures; the distortion contributes to the disguise and sometimes is used, again, to scare away bad elements or spirits.

Which masks appeal to you? Before you begin constructing your mask, get out some paper and a pencil and start sketching! Sketch basic mask shapes, then use markers or crayons to add color and decorations. Think about how you might like to distort or abstract the facial features. Some of these ideas will change as you go, and that’s just fine! However, it’s good to decide at this point on a general size and shape because it’s difficult to change that once you start.

For this project, you will need the following:

  • -Newspaper (several old Sunday papers or a week’s worth of daily papers should be enough)
  • -Three or four brown paper grocery bags
  • -Several file folders or sheets of thin cardboard, card stock, or posterboard
  • -Masking tape
  • -Large mixing bowl and mixing spoon
  • -White school glue
  • -Access to water
  • -Craft knife
  • -Pencils
  • -Acrylic paint and brushes
  • -Varnish
  • -Embellishments (such as feathers, grass, raffia, straw, or beads)
  • -Strong craft glue

In addition, note that the mask must be left to dry overnight several times, so you will need at least several days to complete your mask.

Step One

First, you must make a basic form (called an armature) upon which you will add the papier mache. The easiest and cheapest way is to simply ball up a few sheets of newspaper into a shape that is the size that you want. Wrap masking tape around this a few times to help the armature keep its shape.

Step Two

Next, take the remaining newspaper and tear it into strips. It is important that the strips be torn, not cut (when cut, the edges are too smooth to absorb the paste). These strips should be about 1-inch wide and 4- or 5-inches long. Set the strips aside, then mix the paste by combining equal parts white school glue with lukewarm water.

Now, dip a newspaper strip into the paste, wipe excess paste from the strip with your fingers, and apply to the armature. Each strip should be thoroughly wet with paste, but not dripping or soggy. Apply the strips to the front and sides of the mask in an overlapping, criss-crossing pattern. Apply four complete layers of newspaper strips. Wipe off any excess liquid with your fingers. If the mask is too wet, apply dry strips to the wet areas to soak up the moisture.

Step Three

Refer to your sketches to decide on the placement, size, and shape of facial features. You can build up, exaggerate, and abstract any features—don’t forget about the cheekbones, lips, teeth, chin, nose, ears, and eyebrows. Cut out shapes from the posterboard, thin cardboard, or card stock, or crumple up newspaper, to make forms for the features. Attach these forms to the mask with masking tape, then cover with four layers of overlapping newspaper strips. Leave the mask to dry overnight. Seal any leftover papier mache paste in an airtight container to use for the rest of the project.

Step Four

After 24 hours, the mask should be entirely dry. If it still feels damp, allow it dry for another night. When the mask is entirely dry, turn it over and remove the armature from the inside of the mask. You might need to cut it apart the masking tape holding it together.

Now, mark with a pencil any areas that you plan to cut out, such as holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth. Perhaps you want to cut a design, such as a zigzag, into the edge of the mask. Draw guidelines for any designs, then use a craft knife to carefully cut through the mask layers. Remember, because your mask is strong and hard, it will be difficult to cut fine details. Larger holes or designs will work best.

Kids, please don’t use the craft knife by yourself! Ask an adult or a teen sibling for help.

Step Five

Tear up the brown paper grocery bags into strips approximately 1-inch wide and 2-inches long (shorter than the newspaper strips). Hopefully, your papier mache paste is still wet. If not, just mix some more! First, reinforce the edges of the mask with a single layer of brown strips. Then, cover the entire mask, inside and out, with the brown paper strips. Make sure to wrap the edges of any holes that you have cut. Leave the mask to dry overnight (or however long it takes for the mask to dry entirely).

Step Six

Now you are ready to paint the mask! Refer again to your sketches, and you can even sketch ideas directly onto the mask. Get out your acrylic paints and brushes, and turn that plain brown mask into a work of art. When finished painting, allow the mask to dry completely.

Step Seven

Apply at least one layer of varnish to the painted mask. The varnish will give the mask a nice sheen finish and will also protect the paint from getting chipped or dusty.

Step Eight

Now is the time to add any feathers, straw, raffia, beads, grass, rope, or any other decorations. You can use strong craft glue or low-temp hot glue. Make sure the decorations are securely attached to the mask. Finally, use a hammer and nail to punch holes in both sides of the mask, tie a string through the holes, and hang your beautiful African mask on the wall for all to see.

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