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Celebrating Ancestors

Maude Alexander


After artist and teacher Maude Alexander shows students examples of African masks, she challenges them to visualize one of their ancestors and create a mask that will emphasize, through applied features, that ancestor's major characteristics.

Lesson Focus

Using a "hands-on" activity, students will understand that African masks were and are more than aesthetic artifacts: They are functional implements of the many cultures of the African continent. Students will develop their masks using the symbolism, style, and naturalism used in the masks of Africa -- exaggerations, animal features, geometric shapes, protrusions, ornaments, and natural fibers -- to enhance their feelings and expressions.

Time Requirement

90 minutes will allow the application of plaster craft to dry enough for painting, adding features, and gluing on ornaments.

Skill Development

  • Whether students choose to represent their masks with a natural or a more stylized form, they will develop skills in spatial relationships, geometric design, multimedia usage, and symmetry.
  • Students will learn cultural meanings of color, contrasts, patterning, form, and dimensions.
  • Students will develop skills in identifying locales of some of the hundreds of mask designs and cultural functions of the mask in societal rituals and ceremonies.
  • Students will be able to list the many materials and symbols used in mask making in Africa.


Through mask making, students will combine social studies and art. They will compare masks historically and culturally all over our world, using the masks of many societies. Learning about masks as spiritual and ritualistic expressions will encourage them to view art artifacts both culturally and aesthetically.

Related Artists/Art Works

  • Lois Mailou Jones, Magic of Nigeria (1971), Les Fétiches (1938)
    Photographs of Jones' art works appear in Tritobia Benjamin's The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones (see the resource list below).
  • Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907)
    Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and a 1908 photograph of Picasso seated in front of African masks are both reproduced in Juliet Heslewood's Introducing Picasso (see the resource list below).
  • Wadsworth Jarrell, The Jocks #2 (1981)
    Included in Robert L. Douglas' Wadsworth Jarrell-The Artist as Revolutionary (see the resource list below).

Connections to Educational Standards

The following Kentucky Academic Expectations are all related to Celebrating Ancestors:

  • 2.22: Students create works of art and make presentations to convey a point of view. (Students will create a mask conveying the value of one of their ancestors.)
  • 2.23: Students analyze their own and others' artistic products. (Students will exhibit their finished masks before their peers and tell about the meanings of all the features on their masks.)
  • 2.25: In the products they make and the performances they present, students show that they understand how time, place, and society influence the arts and humanities such as languages, literature, and history. (Students will state what types of ceremonies their masks represent and where in history their masks might have been used.)
  • 2.26: Through the arts and humanities, students recognize that although people are different, they share some common experiences and attitudes. (Students will have an opportunity to compare masks from around the world using real masks and magazine photos; a list of common features will be made and differences noted.)

Materials Needed

  • plaster craft (available from medical supply companies and from arts and crafts stores-for example, Preston Arts and Crafts, Dee's in Louisville, or Michael's)
  • masking tape (1" or 1-1/2")
  • newspaper
  • plastic grocery store bags
  • cardboard sheets to protect the desks from paint and paste
  • acrylic paint
  • paintbrushes
  • rulers
  • scissors
  • low-heat glue gun
  • glue sticks
  • tacky glue
  • junk items for features
  • raffia (available from florists or arts and crafts shops)
  • old jewelry
  • cowrie shells (available from stores that sell African products or from bead stores)
  • fur (fake fur from fabric stores is probably the best bet)
  • hair (old wigs are a good source)
  • feathers
  • bells
  • beads
  • dried berries, beans, seeds

Vocabulary Used in the Lesson

  1. abstract
  2. armature
  3. attributes
  4. characteristics
  5. color
  6. design
  7. form
  8. function
  9. geometric shapes
  10. high contrasts
  11. line
  12. multimedia
  13. naturalism
  14. patterns
  15. primary hues
  16. rhythm
  17. sculpture
  18. secondary hues
  19. shape
  20. space
  21. symmetry
  22. technique
  23. texture
  24. three-dimensional
  25. two-dimensional
  26. value

Lesson Instructions


Have the plaster craft cut into four- or five-inch pieces. Basins of water should be ready, or you can use squirt bottles to dampen material. You may also want to pre-stuff plastic bags with crushed newspaper for the masks' armature. Have the four stages of mask making ready as examples:

  • plastic bag stuffed,
  • application of first layers of plaster craft,
  • features added, and
  • paint applied and ornaments added.

Guide students through the following process:

  1. With the flat side of the bag on a large piece of cardboard, begin to place wetted strips of plaster on your mask. You will need at least four layers of material before you begin to add features.
  2. Now think about one of your ancestors and create the mask's features to represent that ancestor's characteristics. Was it someone with great vision or someone who was wise? If so, you might create a large forehead for your mask or plan to decorate the forehead to emphasize that feature. If the person told great stories, enlarge the mouth. If he or she was a great listener, exaggerate the ears, using cut-out cardboard for ears. Animal teeth indicate protection for the group; slit eyes symbolize femininity. Cowrie shells indicate wealth and symbolize women. Horns are symbols of fertility, and elephant features represent strength.
  3. After the plaster dries, apply a complete coat of paint. Use black, brown, or white for the base. Remember that colors have symbolic meanings (i.e., red for the ancestor or white for death).
  4. Apply additional colors, geometric designs, horns, teeth, jewelry, etc.
  5. Complete the mask with raffia. African masks are considered art in motion, so all masks should include something movable.

Response to Art

Students should take turns telling about their ancestors by exhibiting their masks and pointing out how the features on the masks relate to the characteristics of the people.

Exhibition Suggestion

  • Students can mount their masks, label them, and place them in the hallway or in an exhibit area for public viewing.
  • Students may also share their masks with family members on a school family night. The school might organize a family night featuring the displayed masks along with African food, dancing, and storytelling.
  • Teachers may check with libraries (in school and citywide) to find out whether they would like to exhibit the masks during African-American History month. Museums and senior citizens' facilities also may enjoy these colorful art pieces.
  • If students used actual African masks to inspire their work, the two sets of masks could be exhibited together. Research on the actual use of the mask will be necessary so our use will not offend. (For example, some masks are not seen except by certain people in the societies.)
  • Ethnic and cultural festivals and parades will offer more opportunities for students to exhibit the masks. Masks may also be lent to other schools that are trying the same project or want decorations.


  • Study masks and their use the world over. Each student or group of students can research a different country and make sample masks or create large posters showing their use. The December 1994 issue of Smithsonian magazine would be a good starting point for this activity.
  • Make head-to-toe costumes for each mask using raffia, burlap, and cloth.
  • Choose an African mask and research its use, draw it in full color, or make it in three dimensions using cardboard. Then share the mask, its locale, its use, and its place in the history of African people with classmates.
  • Visit museums, stores, and collectors' homes to view a variety of African masks. Two excellent storehouses of African masks are Kente International and the African American Heritage House, both in Louisville (see the resource list for more information).


Children's Books on African Art and Culture

Allen, William D., Jennings, Jerry E., and Thomas, Benjamin E. Man in Africa. Grand Rapids, MI: The Fideler Company, 1974.

Aardema, Verna. Who's in Rabbit's House? New York: The Dail Press, 1977.

Dakari, Hru. Joshua's Masai Mask. New York: Lee and Low, 1993.

Davison, Basil. African Kingdoms. New York: Time-Life Books, 1966.

Davrell, Elphinstone. Why the Sun and the Moon Live in the Sky. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1968.

Grifalconi, Ann. Fly Away Girl. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.

Heslewood, Juliet. Introducing Picasso. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

Kreikemeier, Gregory S. Come with Me to Africa. New York: Golden Books, 1993.

McCoy, Brendeema. ABC Africa Coloring Book, Volume II. Atlanta, GA: World Publishing Co., 1990.

McDermott, Gerald. The Magic Tree. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

-- Zomo the Rabbit. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1992.

Meyer, Lare. Arts and Crafts of Africa. Paris: Pierre Terrail Publishers.

Monti, Franco. African Masks. London, New York: Paul Hamlyn, 1966.

Musgrove, Margaret. Ashanti to Zulu. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1976.

Onyefulu, Ifeoma. A Is for Africa. New York: Cobblehill Books, Dutton.

Paris, Peter J. The Spirituality of African People. Augsburg: Foress, 1996.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986.

Rupert, Janet E. The African Mask. New York: Clarion Books, 1994.

Savory, Phillis. Zulu Tales. New York: Hastings Publishing Co., 1961.

Sibbett, Junior. Ancient Egyptian Design Coloring Book. New York: Dover Publications, 1978.

The Smiley Lion Book. New York: Golden Press, 1964.

Terzlan, Alexandra M. The Kid's Multicultural Art Book. Charlotte, VT: Williamson Publishing, 1993.

Warren, Sean and McKinnan, Elizabeth. Small World Celebrations. Everett, WA: Warren Publication House Inc.

Yarbrough, Camille. Cornrows. New York: Coward-McCann, Inc.

Books for Teachers/Advanced Students

Adler, Peter. African Majesty. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

African Studies Handbook for Elementary and Secondary Teachers, 3rd edition. University of Massachusetts, Center for International Education, School of Education, 1993.

Bascom, William. African Art in Cultural Perspective. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 1973.

Bearden, Romare. History of African American Artists. San Francisco: Pomegranate Art Books, Inc. 1992.

Benjamin, Tritobia Hayes. "Lois Mailou Jones: The Decorative Pattern of Her Life." American Visions, June/July 1993, pp. 16-20.

-- The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones. San Francisco: Pomegranate Art Books, 1994.

Bolling, John. Soul Force: The Psycho-Spiritual Development of Black Folks. Mandala Risingi Press, 1988.

Boltin, Lee and Douglas Newton. Masterpieces of Primitive Art. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.

Christoph, Henning, Hans, and Oberlander. Voodoo: Secret Power in Africa. New York: Taschen Publishers. (Selected photographs and information on the use of masks suggested.)

Contemporary African Art. New York: Studio International and Africana Publishing Corporation, 1968.

Corwin, Judith Hoffman. African Crafts. New York: Franklin Watts Company, 1990.

Douglas, Robert L. Wadsworth Jarrell-The Artist as Revolutionary. San Francisco: Pomegranate Art Books, 1996.

Fagg, William and John Pemberton. Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

Frayling, Christopher. The Face of Tutankhamun. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992.

"Round and Round the World: Life Is a Masquerade." Smithsonian, December 1994, pp. 94-99.

Glubok, Shifley. The Art of Egypt Under the Pharaohs. New York: McMillan Publishing Co., 1980.

Gordon, Rene. African Continent Revealed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Kerina, Jane. African Crafts. New York: The Lion Press, 1970.

Koloss, Han-Joachim. Art of Central Africa. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.

LaDuke, Betty. Africa Through the Eyes of Women Artists. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1991.

Matthews, Rupert O. Africa: The Mighty Continent. Gallery Books, 1988.

Mazrui, Ali A. The Africans. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1986.

Perry, Regina A. Free Within Ourselves. San Francisco: Pomegranate Art Books, Inc.

Preston, George Nelson. African Art Masterpieces. New York: Macmillan Co., 1991.

Rosman, Abraham and Paula Rubel. The Tapestry of Culture. New York: Random House, 1989.

Segy, Ladislas. Masks of Black Africa. New York: Dover Publications, 1976.

Steiner, Christopher B. African Art in Transit. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thompson, Jerry and Susan Vogel. Close Up. New York: The Center for African Art, 1990.

Thompson, Robert F. Flash of the Spirit. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.

Walther, Ingo F., ed. Pablo Picasso, Volumes I and II. Benedikt Taschen Publishers, 1995.

Whiti, John. African Religions and Philosophy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1969.

Willet, Frank. African Art. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993.

Other Materials

Art Deck (playing cards featuring 53 African artifacts). Manufactured by Aristoplay Ltd., Ann Arbor, MI 48107.

Recommended magazines: American Visions, Archaeology, Caribbean, Contemporary Africa, Ebony, Focus on Africa (Bush House, London), National Geographic, Smithsonian

Museums and Field Trip Destinations

The African American Heritage House Museum
52l W. Ormsby Avenue
Louisville, KY 40203
(502) 636-3754
This museum is dedicated to the documentation, preservation, and perpetuation of the historical, cultural, educational, and spiritual experiences of African Americans. It includes artifacts from the African continent and African-American culture from the colonial period through the present.

J.B. Speed Museum
2035 South Third Street
P.O. Box 2600
Louisville, KY 40201
(502) 636-2894; fax (502) 636-2899
In addition to its permanent collection of African art, the Speed Museum offers schools suitcase exhibits of artifacts and objects, including one on African culture. Contact the Speed for more information.

Background Information on African Masks

Thanks to Dr. Robert Douglas, director of Pan African Studies at the University of Louisville, for supplying this information.

Types of Masks

  • Face Mask: Worn over the face to hide the identity of the wearer and to focus the people on the function of the mask.
  • Head Pieces: Masks carved of wood worn on the front of the head.
  • Helmet Masks: Large carved or metal masks made to rest on the shoulders.

Philosophical Ideas and Practices Governing Mask Use and Functions

These ideas may exist in only one culture group, or they may be common to many African culture groups.

  • When masks are used, there is usually a transcendence of the spirit.
  • The mask is a symbol of a force or deity. Sometimes the mask represents important people or an ancestor. (Close resemblance to the actual person is forbidden.)
  • Masks often include something feminine to reinforce the cherished idea that men can do nothing without women.
  • Music and dance may accompany the wearing of the mask, but not always.
  • The entire costume is considered the mask.
  • The mask spirit does not speak to the people. An interpreter is used to give the people the spirit's message.
  • The masked person needs time to transcend to the "higher plane" and often requires time to return to reality after the appearance. We would call this de-briefing.
  • Africans do not use any image to represent the God force.
  • The masks represent lesser gods or deities.
  • The mask wearer becomes possessed.
  • The mask is an attempt to put things in balance between the forces and man. The use of the mask is also an attempt to control the forces that affect humankind.
  • Ancestors are not worshipped; but they are revered, commemorated, and respected.
  • All things have spiritual force (earth, wind, fire, man, water, and animals-all things have the water force).

As we study African masks, we must interpret them in their cultural context of functions and attributes. When we do this, we shall truly be looking at African culture honestly, as "We Wear the Mask."

Masks: Their Functions, Use, and Purposes

African masks have many uses. The list below indicates a few:

  • to celebrate
  • to honor ancestors or important persons
  • to symbolize spirits
  • to elegize group members
  • to control deities (forces: air, land, and water)
  • to vitalize and extol certain group members
  • to give energy (for dangerous or strenuous tasks)
  • to use for sacrifice (to use in circumcision and initiation ceremonies such as the rites of passage)
  • to identify (every masked priest is recognized by the "Maa go"-small mask-he carries on his person)
  • to teach and continue the passing of the group's traditions
  • to honor the spirits of the larger masks
  • to give courage to fight dangers
  • to encourage peace, stop wars, and praise victories
  • to identify with social authority
  • to teach etiquette by doing the wrong thing dramatically
  • to empower, uplift, and sometimes subdue the group members
  • to judge, punish, and set group limits
  • to exemplify calmness, fierceness, or any needed attribute
  • to appease spirit forces
  • to encourage the fertility of the land
  • to protect group members from evil
  • to heal and make women fertile
  • to install a successor or political figure
  • to propitiate the ancestors when a disaster threatens the village

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Last Updated: Monday, 29-Dec-2008 15:23:24 EST