Art teachers were STEAM-ing before STEAM was cool!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

African Masks from Zaire

This is a great project to teach children about line, pattern and symmetry. It is pretty easy to prep for and easy to clean up after (except for the raffia)--an art teacher's dream! You can keep the project traditional in tones of brown and black, or you can let the children choose their own color palettes and watch these masks come alive!

I started my class with a quick presentation. We'll be covering African art for two weeks so I gave some info about the country and the type of traditional art that is indicative of the population. I made this board with mask examples that show how different African masks can be (and this isn't even an extensive collection!). We talked about how masks can be realistic or stylized.

The display board I made showing different types of African masks.
Plenty of white space to add future info if I want.
Then I pointed to the masks from Zaire that are at the bottom right side of the board. These were carved from wood and have lines that make designs and cover the entire surface of the mask. The little holes around the jawline were where grass was secured creating a beard-like appearance. These mask images came from two books: "Arts of Africa: 7000 Years of African Art," by Enzio Bassani and "Masterpieces of Primitive Art: The Nelson Rockefeller Collection," by Douglas Newton and Lee Boltin. My local library had them and each book had many great examples of masks. I photocopied the images because I could not bring the books in for sharing since there were too many inappropriate images for my age group elsewhere in the books.

I got this mask activity from the book, "Hands On Africa: Art Activities For All Ages," by Yvonne Y. Merrill. It is a wonderful book filled with a variety of art ideas representing the many tribes and countries of Africa. There are projects for wearables, sculptures, musical instruments and more, exploring a variety of art techniques (it's a children's book, but does have some adult content, so view the book before sharing it with your child to determine the appropriateness for your family).

We are going to be covering our masks with lines. Lines can show direction: horizontal, vertical, diagonal. Lines can also be different styles: wavy, zigzag or straight. They can be combined to make patterns.

I explained that these masks are also symmetrical (I whipped out a piece of yarn to hold up to the masks, showing that, if folded, the left side of each mask would match the right side). Elements of art and math concepts--whoo-hoo!

I told my students they could cover their masks with lines and patterns in any color or style BUT their designs HAD TO BE symmetrical. The children had a lot of fun with the project and even more fun wearing them afterwards! Check out the colorful results:

Many of the girls chose NOT to add the beard but go with hair instead.

Nice symmetry and use of line!


  1. Awesome project, what are group were the kids?

    1. Hi Kim-these were done with my homeschool kiddos, so they were in 2nd-5th grade. Hope that helps! Thanks for stopping by.


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