African Mask Batiks

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Batik is a traditional textile method used in Africa and parts of Asia that involves using hot wax to create designs on fabric. The fabric is then dyed in stages, with the wax serving to protect the parts of the fabric that it covers. For these mask designs, we used Crayons on Brown Kraft paper for our “wax”, and black India Ink as our “dye”. The wax of the crayons resisted the water-based ink, but any areas left uncolored, (and therefore unprotected,) turned black when we painted on the ink.

The designs of our masks were created after looking at photographs and discussing the artistic styles of actual West African masks. The important qualities of symmetry, abstraction, exaggeration, and repetition were discussed and the students were encouraged to incorporate some of these elements into their mask design as they found inspiration in the pictures. We also spent time discussing the evolution of African art forms from being purely spiritual objects to commercial commodities.

As a final touch, students were taught how to create a “wrap stitch” and had the option of adding feather and bead designs into their sewed borders. This project was an interdisciplinary lesson that connected with a unit on Africa in their Global Cultures classes.

Interested in doing this lesson with your students? Read on!

We began this lesson by looking at some printed photos of African masks. I asked the students to work in groups to sort the pictures into two groups, but I didn’t tell them HOW to sort them. After some discussion, the students were able to divide the images and more or less identify the two groups as traditional/authentic  versus “fake” or commercially made.

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We then watched two brief videos.

This video gives a great 2 minute overview of African masks and their influence on Western Art. (It is followed by a paper mask tutorial which we skipped.)

This video is an interesting exploration of the evolution of African art, focusing on how spiritual and traditional art-making practices have evolved to reflect economic demand and the tourist trade. I wanted my students to understand that while African masks ARE still used in cultural celebrations, they have morphed from being created solely for spiritual purposes to being produced as commercial commodities. IMPORTANT NOTE: at 7 minutes and 15 seconds, the video includes a section on Sarah Baartman, known as the “Hottentot Venus”, and is probably best skipped if your students are middle schoolers! (There is some nudity).  I jump to 17:35, where the video picks up with an interview of a contemporary South African artist.

Next we looked at pictures and illustrations of African masks across many tribal cultures, focusing on the frequent use of abstraction, repetition, exaggeration, and symmetry.

Students sketched a unique mask design on white paper, then enlarged their design on brown Kraft paper. They were encouraged to draw inspiration from the actual masks, but were permitted to mix and match elements. The background was divided into sections using lines and/or symbols to complete the design. (I print out examples of traditional Adinkra Cloth for the symbol references.) It is important during this step that the students’ designs are BIG and SIMPLE. Small details will not work!

Students beginning their sketches:

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Here are some students enlarging their design onto Kraft paper:

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Next the students go over all their lines with a heavy, thick layer of white crayon. (They will very quickly discover why I discouraged small details!) I always demonstrate an effective technique of working with a back-and-forth motion as you move slowly across a line, thereby depositing several layers of crayon by the time you’ve completed a segment. Thick crayon layers are  CRUCIAL, otherwise the design gets lost when the piece gets inked!

After the white crayon outlines, students use colored crayons to fill in everything else. Again, heavy, thick layers work best! I show some blending techniques that can be done and this is a good opportunity for the students to demonstrate their analogous color knowledge to create some “Ombre” blending effects.

Here’s a student who has finished her white crayon outlines and has begun some terrific color blending on her mask:

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A note on the color step: students are given the option of coloring all the way to the white line, like in this piece:

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…or, they can leave small, equal amounts of blank areas between the white outline and the colored sections, like in parts of this piece:

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I allow students to mix and match BOTH techniques, but it’s important to know that any paper not colored will turn solid black when the piece is inked!

Here are some more students working on the color step:

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Here’s a student all ready to ink. She has used both coloring techniques! Also notice the blending she has done on the face of her mask, overlapping blue, teal and green colors from top to bottom.

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Now comes the fun part, INKING! OK, —I have tried this a zillion different ways to do this with different inks and different papers. In terms of paper, Brown Kraft paper, (or brown paper  grocery bags,) work best. Speedball brand India ink is FAR superior to Higgins in terms of density and opacity. One quart got me through 100 batiks! My tried and true technique is THIS:

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Here’s a visual step-by-step breakdown:

First, wet the piece under running water, front and back, (or immerse it quickly in a tray of water,) and then crumple it into a tight ball, squeezing all excess water out, ONCE. It will look very sad and small!

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Then, CAREFULLY, open it up, being careful not to rip the edges as you un-crumple the piece. (A few rips are to be expected and can be patched with masking tape when the piece is dry.) Lay the piece face down on a clean sheet of newspaper and smooth the edges flat.

Use black India ink to generously ink a JUST THE BACK of the piece. Be careful to brush outwards as you ink the edges so as to not get any ink on the front of the piece. A note on mess-management: I set up an inking station and cover the counter, cabinets, and floor with paper or cardboard because the ink will stain like crazy if it gets on anything.

Here are some students inking the back of their mask designs:

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When inking is complete, transfer the whole piece, on the newspaper, to your drying rack. NO RINSING OR WASHING! Here’s a peek as to the effect that occurs as the piece dries: the ink seeps through the paper, a little bit where there is crayon, and a LOT where you left blank spaces!

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Here’s our sample mask, inked and dry!

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Here’s another before and after example: (Note how the center part of the mask, which Abby left uncolored, has turned a rich, dark black after the inking process!)

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The last part of this project involves sewing a simple wrap stitch around the edges of the batik. We use yarn, plastic pony beads and large tapestry needles for this step. Here’s a handout I make to help the kids, (but honestly, they seem to get it better by watching a demonstration!)

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Before sewing they must apply strips of masking tape around the edges of the back of the piece. This prevents the paper from ripping and tearing when we sew. Some students also draw dots as a guideline for their stitch spacing, but most students just “eyeball” it. My requirements are that they create some kind of pattern with their yarn color and bead placement, and that they create a consistently sewn border with tight, snug stitches.

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Students sewing:

My students love the effect of the ink on the paper and how the finished pieces really have a cloth-like feel. They were very proud of their finished African Mask Batiks! Good luck trying this lesson with your students!

 

 

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Patricia Smith
    Oct 21, 2019 @ 05:02:31

    Hello! Great work! I understand how you got the big areas of color on craft paper, using crayons, india ink- crumpling paper and rinsing. But how did you get the white line drawing? When and how did that happen in the process?

    Reply

    • uamsler
      Oct 21, 2019 @ 23:10:13

      The outlines are done with white crayon. We do all the major outlines with white, THEN go in with the color crayons to fill in the spaces.

      Reply

  2. Patricia Smith
    Nov 14, 2019 @ 06:03:42

    Hello Ms Amsler! I’m back again. I tried the technique and i love the results. Thank you so much for sharing this. However I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind answering a just a few questions. I love the results but my colors were not as bright as your final results. Maybe I’m leaving out a step. This is what I did:
    1) Drew an image on brown kraft paper using white crayon. I pressed hard to get really good coverage. Then colored in spaces with different colors so crayon filled the paper except areas that I wanted to remain black.
    2) This is where I’m not sure if I did the right thing or not. I brushed over the entire image with black India ink then immediately ball up the paper tightly.
    3) I opened up the paper and proceeded to rinse it off.

    It looks like I washed out too much of the India ink in spots and maybe washed out some color. My questions are:

    1) After brushing image with ink, was I supposed to rinse out immediately or let it dry a bit before rinsing?
    2) Does it matter how long you take to rinse it out?
    3) Did you use a special kind of crayon that gives you those bright colors?

    I so love this project. Bought India ink and Kraft paper just for this.

    Thank you for your time.
    Patricia Smith

    Reply

    • uamsler
      Feb 13, 2020 @ 02:23:09

      OH DEAR! I never saw this message! I’m updating the page with more specific instructions so check back again soon!

      Reply

      • Patricia Smith
        Feb 13, 2020 @ 02:49:07

        Lol! No worries. I ended up really liking the results but I will be happy to hear any advice you might want to share. Once I take a few pictures, I will upload some to show you. Thank you once again!

  3. Elizabeth Garat
    Aug 20, 2021 @ 00:45:10

    These are so successful. You are amazing.
    Have you it tried oil pastels ? Or just regular crayons?

    Reply

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