Make a Ceremonial African Mask with Paper Mache

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Project Difficulty Level: Challenging.

This paper mache mask is modeled after a one that was made by a Dogon artist. There are a number of websites that show these masks, because their beauty makes them valuable works of art. I found the hyena mask I copied here.  The process was challenging because I was attempting to copy an original piece of art made by a master craftsman, and that’s always a humbling experience. The original, I admit, is much nicer than mine. You can see the original mask here. My copy is shown above.

The second challenge was to fold and bend cardboard into a shape that resembled the original form. I normally use crumpled paper as the inside form for my paper mache sculptures, but in this case the mask is hollow, and needs to have strong walls. The cardboard gives the piece it’s strength without requiring many layers of paper mache, but a lot of cutting and bending and prodding were necessary to make it work.

Dogon Mask, Step 1
Dogon Mask, Step 1

Step 1:

First, I cut a long strip of cardboard about 7 1/2 inches wide, and long enough to go around my head almost twice. I rolled the cardboard into a shape that was slightly wider at the bottom than the top, and then taped it all the way around in two places to hold it solid. (I made sure it would go around my head so it would be the right size, but since these masks have ceremonial and possibly religious significance to the people who originally designed them, I think it might be disrespectful to actually wear the finished mask. In fact, is the act of making a copy of a ceremonial mask a form of cultural theft? If you have an opinion one way or another, please leave a comment below).

After the roll was taped together, I trimmed the bottom so the tube could sit flat on the table.

Dogon Mask, Step 2
Dogon Mask, Step 2

Step 2:

Now I needed a rounded dome for the top of the mask’s head. The dome sticks out further in the front, creating a deep overhang (the “hyena’s” browbone). To make the cardboard into a dome, I found a bowl that was the right size, and cut a piece of cardboard slightly larger than the bowl.

Dogon Mask, Step 3
Dogon Mask, Step 3

Step 3:

I used a box cutter to make a number of cuts in the cardboard, from the center to the outside edge. An area about two inches wide was left in the middle, without cuts, to hold the piece together.

Dogon Mask, Step 4
Dogon Mask, Step 4

Step 4:

Next, I placed the bowl on the center of the cardboard circle. I pressed the edges of the circle up around the bowl and taped them together. This took quite a bit of coordination and juggling, and lots of tape. The cardboard ‘bowl’ was then trimmed to the right size.

Dogon Mask, Step 5
Dogon Mask, Step 5

Step 5:

I taped the cardboard dome onto the top of the tube, with an overhang in the front.

Dogon Mask, Step 6
Dogon Mask, Step 6

Step 6:

I then taped short pieces of cardboard under the overhang. I eventually used enough tape to cover all the spaces between the cardboard pieces.

Dogon Mask, Step 6
Dogon Mask, Step7

Step 7:

If you look at the finished mask at the top of this post you can see that the mouth is made of three protrusions, or “lips.” To make these, I cut six cresents out of cardboard, and taped them together in pairs so they would be thick enough.

Dogon Mask, Step 8
Dogon Mask, Step 8

Step 8:

I now taped these mouth parts to the front of the mask, about 1 1/2 inches from the bottom. Then I cut a nose piece and folded it over. It was cut so it would fit between the mouth and the eyebrow overhang, with a strip continuing up over the brow.

Dogon Mask, Step 9
Dogon Mask, Step 9

Step 9:

You can see from the photo above that I’ve now added the two pieces that make up the bottom of the nose. The original mask that I copied had a crooked nose, which gave the mask a wonderfully whimsical look. I made sure to tape the nose on my mask crooked, too. I also cut out the diamond shapes for the eyes.

Dogon Mask, Step 10
Dogon Mask, Step 10

Step 10:

The ears are each made from two pieces. The first piece is a long strip that is bent in two places to make a box-shaped piece, and this is taped to the sides of the mask. These pieces start at the top of the outer edges of the mouth and continue up about an inch above place where the curved dome is attached to the bottom tube. (You can see this more clearly by looking at the side photo of the original mask here.)

Dogon Mask, Step 11
Dogon Mask, Step 11

Step 11:

After the box-shaped piece was taped on, I added the ear shape to the top. To give them a spoon-like shape, I cut them in several places and folded each cut piece in and taped them, the way the top dome was shaped.

Dogon Mask, Step 12
Dogon Mask, Step 12

Step 12:

The cardboard manipulation is almost done. The only thing that’s left is to cut out part of the back of the mask, and add a semi-circular piece to the back.

Dogon Mask, Step 13
Dogon Mask, Step 13

Step 13:

The last piece of cardboard is taped above the hole that has now been cut out at the back. Before I added any paper mache, I spent some time poking and pushing and taping the top of the mask, so it woudl be as rounded as possible. I also spent some time shaping the ears so they would have fairly smooth forms.

Dogon Mask, Step 14
Dogon Mask, Step 14

Step 14:

Now for the wonderfully messy part – I begin to add a layer of newsprint and paper mache paste. I used a simple flour and water paste recipe, and covered the entire mask, including all the cut edges, and the inside of the mask, too. I did this in several steps – I put the paper mache on the front of the mask and let it dry, then turned it over and did the back of the mask. When this was dry I could safely turn it upside down and put a layer of paper mache on the inside.

Dogon Mask, Step 15
Dogon Mask, Step 15

Step 15:

When the newsprint layer was completely dry, I added another layer, using brown Kraft paper. Only two layers are used, both inside and out. Since the cardboard was not as smoothly rounded as I wanted, I used extra paper in the low spots to make a more perfect dome.

Dogon Mask, Step 16
Dogon Mask, Step 16

Step 16:

After the brown paper layer dried I sanded the rough spots off and added a “skin” layer of paste made from white flour, water, and carpenter’s glue. I don’t actually measure the ingredients, but I do know that too much glue will make the mixture set up too quickly. Too little glue, and the paste will crack when it dries. I smoothe the paste on with the side of my finger.

Dogon Mask, Step 17
Dogon Mask, Step 17

Step 17:

I believe the original Dogon mask was stained instead of painted. I wanted this same look, so I mixed some color into my second layer of “skin” paste. This paste is slighly transparent, so two layers of dark grey are needed. There will still be be a bit of the light paper color showing through in spots, giving the finished mask a hand-crafted feel. I do not cover the lip area, since it is lighter than the other parts of the mask. I put the dark grey paste on the inside, too. To make this color, I used a little bit of black and a little bit of burnt sienna (brown) acrylic paint mixed in with the flour/water/glue mixture.

Dogon Mask, Step 18
Dogon Mask, Step 18

Step 18:

Holes were drilled in the back. The original mask has some ropes dangling from these holes. You won’t see the rope in the finished photo below because I need to make a trip to the hardware store to buy some.

Dogon Mask, Step 19
Dogon Mask, Step 19

Step 19:

Almost finished! I put a bit of the dark grey skin paste in two cups, and mix up the color for the spots. (Spotted hyena…) The light spots have some white acrylic paint added, making a very light grey. The ‘red’ spots have burnt sienna and white acrylic paint added to the dark grey paste. I found that acrylic craft paint actually works better than acrylic artists colors, but I don’t know why this matters. The more expensive artists colors react to the glue in the paste and cause the paste to thicken. The craft paint doesn’t do that. Go figure…

Dogon Mask, Step 20
Dogon Mask, Step 20

Step 20:

After all the spots have been added, and some red has been painted around the eyes, I sanded the mask to give a slightly ‘used’ look. Some of the paper color can be seen in a few spots, especially over the ridge of the nose and the eyebrow ridge. Then I add a final glaze. The glaze is made from water-based verathane with a very small amount of white and bronze yellow added. This glaze is brushed onto a small area and then immediately wiped off with a paper towel. I also mixed up a darker glaze to correct the color of the mouth. The light glaze over the dark grey (and all the spots) gave the mask an antique look.

Paper Mach Dogon Mask

45 thoughts on “Make a Ceremonial African Mask with Paper Mache”

  1. Can I have your e-mail to ask you questions on making this incase I need help? Thanks! Great job by the way

  2. Thank you for these instructions, and your website! Very helpful & inspirational. I’m creating a paper mache form of the Stanley Cup for a Burning Man project. The way you used the cardboard on this mask are just the ticket for the Cup’s bowl, and base. The info on sanding to make the structure smooth was a huge discovery.

    Thanks – You’ve helped me a lot!

  3. Hello
    Thank you for the useful instructions, mine is a little different but the instructions helped a lot to get the basic shape.
    I have used my mask for a university assignment about Dogon Masked dances.
    Thanks again
    Samantha

  4. I have used 2 liter soda bottles and gallon milk jugs as the base for decorative masks made with newspaper strips and wet glue (1/2 water, 1/2 glue) and they worked out well for overhanging eyebrows and the like we just taped wadded and twisted newspaper to the masks and them put the paper mache strips over top. I cant wait to try it with the paper clay recipe you have though i think it will be much easier

    oh and the masks is Makara, a mythical creature. Ridden by the goddess Ganga and the god Varuna in Hindu religious stories. According to wikipedia the makara is traditionally considered to be an aquatic creature, and some traditional accounts identify it with crocodile, whereas some other accounts identify it with dolphin. Still others portray it as a fish body with an elephant’s head. The tradition identifies the makara with water, the source of all existence and fertility.

  5. I really admire the underlying structure – I know that manipulating cardboard is rough on the hands – and you must have began to feel like some kind of juggling Houdini putting this one together. I would try it – but my husband is not one who appreciates “ugly” art, and our apartment is already filled to brimming with my “pretty” art.

    • Yes, the cardboard can be a bit hard to handle. Maybe your husband would prefer a mask from another culture – a Haida raven mask, for instance. They’re beautiful.

    • The most obvious thing I’d change is to replace all the paper strips and paste with the paper mache clay.

      I’ve been thinking lately about the possibility of building a mask using paper mache clay over an aluminum foil form, and then removing the foil so the mask would be hollow inside. That would eliminate the most tedious part of making this Dogon mask, cutting and shaping and taping all the cardboard. However, I don’t know yet if the clay would be strong enough without the cardboard form behind it. if anyone tries this, please let us know how your experiment turned out.

  6. one more question, when you painted the mask black and added white dots did you then paint the color over the black, leaving the white dots to be filled in?

    • After painting the black background and the hyena’s spots, I then went back over it with a very thin wash of white acrylic, thinned with a lot of water. I actually wiped most of this off the mask before it dried – you have to be quick and only work in very small areas at a time. It left the mask with an interesting finish that reminds me of an old painted wooden mask. However, you could accomplish almost exactly the same thing by making the background gray instead of black, and skipping the wash at the end. Hope that helps clear things up.

  7. can you make this mask with the cardboard and without the dome top and it would still curve in the back after cutting it?
    would much appreciate if you knew, thank you

    • Hi Emma. If you roll up your cardboard and then cut out a section for the head to go – but leave some at the top to hold the mask together, it should work. I’m not entirely sure I understood your question, so I hope that helps.

  8. Thank you so much for showing us the exact steps needed to create this wonderful mask! I am a collector of masks and an artist, as well. You have given me the confidence to try this on my own and I cannot thank you enough. You have great talent and organization skills. I’m sure others have learned a great deal from your mask “lesson”. You have inspired me!

  9. Thanks for putting the link to the Himilayan mask. I didn’t know that art newspaper existed and I’m excited to see it. Something I’m going to try to make is a flying winged Route 66 sign to give to the owner of a restaurant we’ve been restoring. I haven’t done paper mache since elementary school so wish me luck.

    • Good Luck! Remember that flat items tend to warp during the drying process more than rounded forms, so you need to keep your eye on it – or maybe even weight it down if you’re making a flat sign. I’m sure it will turn out great!

  10. Also check out this photo of an outrageously elaborate (and slightly scary) paper mache mask from the Himalayas. I think it’s an elephant, but it might be a god. If you decide to copy it, or one of the Dogon masks like the one above, please let us know how it turned out.

    • It’s a Buddhist wrathful deity. There are many of them in Buddhism and they exist to ward off evil, bad luck and all the other unpleasant things one would normally encounter. Look up Mahakala – he is a great example of beings that, as the Buddhist lamas teach, put on an angry mask but are in fact very good and kind 🙂

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