Modern Mask: Ancient Art

By Pichini, Cecelia D.; Sanson, Debra | School Arts, October 1990 | Go to article overview

Modern Mask: Ancient Art


Pichini, Cecelia D., Sanson, Debra, School Arts


A stroll down the corridors of Strack Intermediate School would make you think you were visiting an ancient African village. African masks decked with shells, feathers, leather, metals, and other found objects peer out from brightly colored backgrounds. The seventh grade art students combined art history, sculpture and painting into one exciting art experience.

Our initial motivation began at the local museum. We were invited to attend an evening for educators sponsored by the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Tribal art from Africa and Indonesia was the topic for the evening. To our delight, what could have been an ordinary experience was a venture in sight and sound as we watched tribal dancers performing to the beat of primitive drums. We were instantly captivated and involved in viewing and discussing the tribal art on display. At that moment, we knew this was an experience that we wished to share with our students.

Even though the dancers were unavailable to perform in our classrooms, we were able to simulate our experience by playing African music for the students as we viewed slides of African art. The students became absorbed in discussions of the fantasy and mystique of African masks.

We let our museum experience become the framework for our maskmaking project. What makes this project unique is that we carried the idea one step further by requiring the students to design a backdrop painting to complement their masks. This idea came to us after viewing ancient Indonesian headcloths displayed at the museum. The headcloths were made from pieces of tree bark painted with brightly colored designs and worn by Indonesian men to signify their rank in the tribe. These headcloths reminded us of beautiful geometric paintings which could be used to enhance our masks.

The results were colorful, creative designs that incorporated all of the principles and elements of design. The students were proud to display their sculptural reliefs in our end-of-the-year art show. In addition, they gained an insight into tribal cultures.

We began this project with the mask construction. The students used a milk carton armature, papier-mache and acrylic paint as basic materials. The milk carton was cut in half and turned upside down, so that the handle represented the nose structure, and the opening served as a neck structure. From this point on, the students let their imaginations take over. …

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