Communicating Values and History through Masks

Author: Tricia McGregor

Grade Level: Early Elementary


The students will create an African style mask that depicts a value or character trait that is important in their community.


clay, kiln, glaze, brushes, newspaper, dull knives, sponges, toothpicks, pipe cleaners, buttons, fabric scraps, yarn, old jewelry

Here is some Background Information on African masks.


1. Ask the students where or when they have seen masks. Try to stimulate other responses than Halloween, such as; theater, Chinese New Year, masquerades, ethnic groups, etc. There are several good web sites with pictures of masks. This site shows pictures of masks from Africa and other countries.

This site has pictures of African masks and a summary of their uses.

2. Discuss with the students how African artists carve masks out of wood for religious, ceremonial or decorative purposes. Religion, farming, hunting and becoming a young adult are other significant events. The masks convey what is important to these people.

3. Ask the students what character traits or values are important to them. What facial expressions express these values?

4. Students create an African style mask which portrays a personal value. For example, if a person values music or speech the mask may have an open mouth. If a person is very modest a mask may be made with lowered eyes. If the community is rich in rocks or minerals, jewelry may be highly valued. A mask could have ears with several piercings. Holes can be made in the clay, while it is wet, so accessories can be added after the piece is fired. Discuss some other values with the class and write them on the board. A few examples may be honesty, kindness, sports, music, pets, family, friends, books, recess etc. Ask the students for suggestions on how to portray these ideals in a mask.

5. Cover the desks with newspaper.

6. Pass out one pound of clay to each student. They can pound or roll the clay out flat. Encourage students to use tools to carve into the clay. Holes, that go through to the other side, may be carved before the piece is fired.

7. The teacher fires the masks.

8. The students glaze the masks.

9. The teacher refires the masks.

10. Accessories may be added after the mask has been glazed and fired for the final time. Pipe cleaners, buttons, paper clips, fabric scraps and yarn are a few materials that can be used to decorate the masks. Explain that not all masks are worn and that these will be decorative.


Students take turns explaining how their mask portrays a value which has been taught to them and why it is important in their community.


The Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia (CD Rom) (1995).

Chanda, Jaqueline (1997). Discovering African Art.

Worcester, Massachusetts: Davis Publications.



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