The students will be introduced to the methodology of object analysis, which is carried out in three stages. Description, the first stage, is where the viewer begins with a substantial analysis that includes the physical dimensions, the materials used, and the articulation. The person also examines iconography, inscriptions or engravings. This first stage ends with "formal analysis" where the viewer describes the two-dimensional and three-dimensional organizations, including color, light and texture.
The second stage is deduction, where the viewer interacts physically, intellectually, and emotionally with the object.
The final stage is speculation. Based on the information in the first two stages, the observer formulates hypotheses, and then develops a program that validates the investigation of questions posed by the material evidence.
One can appreciate a mask even without knowing everything about its meaning. But when one tries to figure out how the mask was used and why, one can only increase one's appreciation of the mask and, by extension, better understand the cultural tradition of the people who made it.
It is in this perspective that I thought the methodology of object analysis, or more properly an adaptation of it would be most useful, especially the first step, description.
As a teacher of French, levels 3, 4, and 5, I conduct my classes mostly in French. Thus the description will be very enriching for my students as far as vocabulary is concerned. There are areas that we don't usually refer to, or talk about, such as the two-dimensional and three-dimensional organizations/properties. It is true we use horizontal and vertical lines when we play crossword puzzles, but we don't get to use the geometrical shapes: triangle/triangular, rectangle/rectangular, circle/circular, angle/angular/ square, pyramidal, cylindrical…
To better serve our purposes in the comfort of the classroom, I am going to introduce an adapted version of the object analysis methodology. It is going to be done twofold: description and what I am going to call constructive speculation where I bring together both deduction and speculation.
In order to remain faithful to my objectives, the masks we are going to start with in the frame of object analysis are two initiation masks from French speaking Africa.
The first mask is by the Yaka people of the Congo. It is a male initiation mask (N'Kanda). This N'Kanda mask is a hand-held mask with a full raffia fiber cap surrounding it. It is oval with deep eye sockets, protruding eyelids and a thick upturned nose. The mouth is open, showing teeth. There are spaces between the teeth and one or two teeth are missing from the upper row. The mask is surrounded with a thick, dark rim. Above the mask is a mound of stuffed raffia cloth with a lizard draped over the top, the head extended forward looking toward the person viewing the mask. There are long thin curved protrusions extending upward and a fifth one hangs on the right. Horizontal lines are visible between the upper and lower teeth, as well as the upper and lower lips, and the opening of the eyelids. There are strong vertical lines in the raffia and in the protrusions on top of the mask. Also there are vertical lines between the teeth and both sides of the mouth. There are triangles painted all around the inside rim of the mask. The head of the lizard is also triangular, and so is the space between the second and third stick starting from the left. The mouth is rectangular. Curved lines are present on the raffia on the tip of the nose, the eyelids, the back of the lizard, and the sticks on top of the mask.
Brightest spot is the forehead. The colors of the raffia are blue and white. The materials used are wood, pigments woven raffia cloth, and raffia fiber.
The rim with triangles indicates a hope for a brighter future. The lizard is there to protect the initiates. The stick points upward to create a connection with a greater being, a divine ancestor. The raffia cloak increases protection. The teeth are clenched to ward off evil spirits. The eyes are closed to avoid visual contact with these same evil spirits. The raffia pointing down and the sticks pointing up suggests a link between mother earth and the divine. Along with the nose, the sticks are also phallic symbols, the one pointing down representing the ancestors and the ones pointing up representing the new initiates.
The initiates in front of the mask feel the strength and the power of the dance. They sense the protection of the lizard's gaze and are aware of the connection between themselves, the ancestors, the sick pointing down (sticks we don't see) and the ones reaching up. The sticks are the horns of the antelope and they are chosen here for fertility. The horn of the antelope represents the planted grain sprouting through the earth.
The second mask that we are going to analyze is made by the Songye people of former Zaire, the Democratic Republic of Congo. This twelve-inch mask is carved out of hard wood. There are bulging eyes, a protruding nose, a mouth that sticks out from the face. The forehead is a dome like shape whereas the lower half of the face is concave. The face is wider at the forehead and tapers down toward the base of the neck/chin. The eyes are partially open. The mouth is open with no visible teeth. The top of the lower lid is carved in a zigzag pattern. The bridge of the nose extends upwards between the eyes across the forehead to the top of the skull. There are visible holes evenly spaced at the level of the neck.
The entire mask is covered with carved diagonals and curved lines. The horizontal lines consist of the base of the eyelid and the top and bottom of the mouth. The nose creates a strong vertical line as do the sides of the mouth. The diagonally carved lines are
defined by strong vertical boundaries. The nose is a triangle as well as its left side. The four sides of the protruding mouth as well as the lips form rectangles. There is a curved line at the base and top edge of the eyelids. The crescent shape is repeated in the curved lines ascending from the eyes to the crown.
The colors are dark brown and white. The lined areas are rough; the nose, the mouth, and the bottom of the mask are smooth.
The mask could represent a chameleon, but on another level, the crescent shape of the eyes and the curved lines on top of them point to a relationship between the planet and the cosmos. The curved lines may also represent animal stripes.
I briefly mentioned in the introduction the general process of initiation that is common to many African cultures. The basic idea is that the initiate/adolescent dies a symbolic spiritual death. "The symbolism is expressed sometimes in a terrifying monster that swallows up the boys. After this 'death' the boys led by their mentors pass through the supernatural world of mythology. They experience this perilous journey through privation, humiliation and fear." (Wassing, 1988, 70) The moment he emerges from those tests the adolescent is symbolically reborn. The process is a transition from the relatively ignorant and irresponsible state of childhood to the state of responsible adulthood with all its secrets, responsibilities, privileges, and expectations. These secrets and responsibilities are taught by the masks who, during the initiation, become the ancestors themselves or become spirits and demons embodying the powers of nature.
For students to understand the different stages of initiation we are going to try and draw some parallels between initiation in Africa and our lives. So the question to answer is what kind of stages do we go through? As a Muslim, I am going to talk about how, in Islam, we go through circumcision sometime between birth and the age of seven. There is a ceremony that takes place in which the boy who is circumcised wears a traditional dress, usually white and green, two colors commonly used in the Islamic world.
The second major stage in Islam is at puberty when it becomes obligatory for the Muslim to fast the holy month of Ramadan. Up until this point, a child may fast as s/he desires: a day, several days, a week or more. Once a girl has her first menstruation and a boy his first ejaculation, it is obligatory to fast during the entire month of Ramadan.
Similarly in Judaism, circumcision takes place eight days after birth. A bar mitzvah or bar mizvah, where the community recognizes the person as an adult, takes place at thirteen.
In Catholicism, baptism takes place at birth, first communion at seven and confirmation at puberty.
It is evident that puberty is celebrated as a crucial stage in the human cycle of life. The Africans believe that when a young man or girl reaches puberty he or she starts a new life. This implies individual and social recognition of the paramount importance of the sexual drive. Africans do not repress it, as we do, but acknowledge it and emphasize it at adolescence. (Segy, 1953, 60)
Following our objectives within the process of learning about African cultures through the analysis of their arts, my students and I are going to visit the Yale Art Gallery for a close encounter with the masks. Just before that I will divide them into groups of three or four, depending on the size of the class, and give each group an assignment to research one of the French speaking countries represented in the Yale Art Gallery. They will also find out about the different people living in their assigned country. By doing this, each group will know which mask(s) to focus on as part of our analysis.
Moreover, the students will experience their art first hand and see examples of the masks that we will have analyzed in class. An example of the masks the students will have already encountered is the headdress mask (Chi Wara) of the Bamana, also known as the Bambara, in Mali. As a matter of fact, the Chi Wara mask at the Gallery is a perfect example of the mythological creature of the Bamana that embodies both a human and an animal, the antelope. It is worthwhile to mention that the Chi Wara headdress are carved pairs, one male and one female. A pair of dancers wear these masks, imitating an antelope that prances and pounds seeds into the soil. It is a dance to honor the Chi Wara and to ensure a successful planting season.
Another example of a mask that the students will have seen is the Kefwebe face mask of the Songye of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a cubistically conceived mask of which the surface is incised and colored in geometric patterns. Besides its use in male circumcision rites as an overseer and protector, the Kifwebe mask is worn by healers during their ritual dances.
Among the masks that I cited and that my students are going to encounter is the Kaogle face mask of the Dan people. The eyes of the Kaogle mask are deep-set triangular apertures. The forehead bulges pronouncedly over the pyramidal shaped cheeks. This mask in the Gallery is one of the best preserved illustrations of Kaogle masks.
The students' task at the Art Gallery is to choose a mask based on research and to analyze it according to our adapted version of Professor Prown's object analysis methodology. The students' analysis of the mask, the presentation they will do in class about their findings, how they link the mask to its cultural context, and whether the mask is or could be used in initiation rites will be the project of the marking period. Numerically speaking, it will be 25% of their grade for the marking period.
The last objective/activity is for my students to create their own masks. I will provide all the necessary material for such an activity: clay, plaster of Paris strips, water bowls or buckets, paper and plastic plates, balloons, wall-paper paste, paint brushes, acrylic paint, scissors, beads, shells, etc. It is up to each student to make his/her mask, whether or not it is a face mask (human or animal) or a helmet mask. This activity will probably last two or three days to allow the material to dry before applying any paint on it.
How to make a face mask: Form and model clay around a round paper or plastic plate. Eye holes may be cut through the plate or modeled with clay. If extensions such as ears, teeth, wings, hair, etc are desired, model these and add carefully. Wrap the masks with moist paper towels and plastic so that the clay will dry evenly. Let dry.
Apply a thin coat of Vaseline so as to cover the entire clay mask. Moisten precut "Plaster of Paris" strips with water. Drape them directly on to the clay mask, alternating horizontal to vertical 3 to 4 times. Let dry.
Gently remove the paper or plastic plate and clay. (The Vaseline makes this possible). The mask is now a face formed from the clay. Trim any edges with scissors. Paint the mask with acrylic paints.
How to make a helmet mask: Inflate a balloon (13-15 inch diameter). Prepare wall-paper paste for your class 20 minutes beforehand. Dip individual strips of pre-cut newspaper into wall-paper paste mixture. Stir mixture occasionally. Alternately apply layers 1-3. Smooth them as you layer the strips. Leave an opening approximately 4-5 inches in diameter where the balloon is tied.
Add layers 4 and 5. Let dry completely.
Pop the balloon and remove. Paint the type of face desired with acrylics. Cut the eye and neck openings.