How to Make African Masks With Papier-Mâché

by Nora Zavalczki
African mask carved in wood.

African mask carved in wood.

Hemera Technologies/ Images

African masks are carved in wood with a cutting tool known as adzee, or they are cast in metal. Artisans, farmers or blacksmiths prepare these masks. The masks are not portraits of people, but they serve at ceremonies and may also be a means of communication with the spirits. Using papier-mâché and recycled paper is an easy and inexpensive means of making a decorative African mask.

Items you will need

  • White glue
  • Vegetable oil or glycerin
  • Newspapers or scrap paper
  • Pair of scissors
  • Balloon
  • Water-based paints
  • Raffia, yarn, seashells, beads, horns, cotton fibers, jute rope
  • Gesso (optional)
  • Sandpaper
Step 1

Prepare the paste for the papier-mâché. Use one part white glue and one part water. Add a few drops of vegetable oil, which acts as a preservative. Alternatively, use a few drops of glycerin.

Step 2

Gather a few newspapers and recycled paper and cut or tear them into thin strips.

Step 3

Select a design for the African mask you want to make. Opt for a design such as the antelope-shaped Kwele, a moon-shaped Teke mask or a colorful Woyo mask.

Step 4

Inflate a balloon, which should be as long as the mask you chose to make. You will use a half of the balloon.

Step 5

Get a strip of paper and moisten it in the glue paste you prepared. Place the strip on the balloon. Alternatively, use a paintbrush to apply paste on both sides of the paper strip and place the strip on the balloon. Apply several other strips of paper close together, so that you cover half of the balloon with a layer of paper.

Step 6

Leave the paper to dry and apply a second layer of paper. Allow the paper to dry. You may apply several layers of paper, until you obtain the desired thickness.

Step 7

Remove the paper shape from the balloon and cut it into the shape of the mask. African masks may be oval, circular, rectangular, elongated, heart-shaped, animal or human, or a combination of any of these shapes.

Step 8

Add horns or fangs to the sides of the mask if these exist in the design of the mask you make. Cut the horns and fangs out of cardboard and use tape to secure them to the mask. Cover the tape with one or two layers of paper and glue.

Step 9

Cut openings for the mouth, nose and eyes of the mask.

Step 10

Paint the mask using water-based paints. Glue on decorations such as beads, jute, yarn, seashells, colored glass, fibers or horns.

Tips & Warnings

  • Apply a layer of gesso on both sides of the mask before you paint it. Gesso makes the material thicker and more durable.
  • If the mask is rough to the touch, sand it before you paint it.
  • Prepare your papier-mâché using cornstarch instead of white glue. Mix equal parts of water and cornstarch and add four parts of boiling water to the mixture to obtain your paste.

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/ Images