Molo Mask, 1900–1930
Wood and paint
o/a: 65 1/2 × 14 × 13 1/2 inches (166.4 × 35.6 × 34.3 cm)
Gift of D. and J. de Menil in memory of Dr. Jermayne MacAgy
Habits of Mind
- UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
- COMMUNICATE Verbalize ideas, thoughts, feelings / ask provocative questions / ask for support
Writing Mask Poems
Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.
• Generate descriptive words about works of art, the animals, and the emotions they evoke.
• Use point of view in writing poetry
Connecting to the Work of Art
This Molo mask, from the Bobo people from Burkina Faso, pays homage to the buffalo indicated by the curved horns. A greatly feared animal, the cape buffalo represents strength and is a symbol of the community leader. The rounded top of this mask is a helmet that fits over the head of the wearer, with the horns rising up and the large rectangle of the buffalo’s face extending down. The mask was probably worn during a ritual or festival by a blacksmith, craftsman, or other person of distinction of the Do society.
The painted designs on each Bobo mask are unique, thus no two masks are the same. On this mask the tall curving horns are painted in alternating bands of red and white. On the face, on either side of the long nose ridge, is a symmetrical design of red, blue, and white triangles. This mask, covered entirely with geometric designs, would be freshly painted before each ceremony.
The creation of a large mask is a long task, rooted in tradition. It begins with chopping down a small tree and carving out half of its trunk lengthwise in order to expose the finest and freshest grain of the wood. The pigments used to decorate the mask come from natural sources such as plants and minerals.
Bobo masks represent plant-like beings, birds, animals, humans, and combinations of these. Worn with costumes made of leaves and knotted plant fibers, masks help master the forces of nature that threaten life-sustaining food crops. They are worn for several types of events, including ceremonies that are performed to appease the spirits of the ancestors and the spirits of nature; special ceremonies such as funerals, seasonal festivals, and the ritual purification of the village; and ceremonies initiating young men into societies, such as the Do society. For additional information about African masks, see the Ekpeye Pangolin Headdress.
Masks are carved by specially trained craftsmen in the village, who typically do other specialized handcrafts such as ironworking. These people enjoy a higher social status than farmers or other laborers.
Describe the textures, shapes and material in this artwork. Do you think it is hard or soft? Heavy or light?
What material do you think this object is made from? How can you tell?
What lines and patterns can you see?
Discuss symmetry and variety in this work. How do they balance each other?
This works also conveys a careful observation of nature. What does the work represent?
How do you think this object was used?
What colors are used? What associations do you have with these colors?
Consider the dimensions of this work. How might this object have been used? Is it functional or decorative or both?
This is a mask, and its rounded top is a helmet that fits over the head of the wearer. Can you see what animal it represents?
The horns rising up and the large rectangle are the horns and downward face of a buffalo’s. What was the buffalo a symbol of? Think of the animal’s specific qualities.
A greatly feared animal, the buffalo represents strength and is a symbol of the community leader. What does this tell you about where, when and by whom the mask was worn?
The mask was worn by the Bobo people from Burkina Faso and was probably worn during a ritual or festival by a blacksmith, craftsman, or other person of distinction of the Do society. Worn with costumes made of leaves and knotted plant fibers, masks help master the forces of nature that threaten life-sustaining food crops. What examples are there of ritual and superstition in your society? Do you think the importance of ritual has changed? What do we do in our time to master the forces of nature?
Would you enjoy a ceremony like the one that the Bobo people had? How would you feel wearing this mask?
This mask, covered entirely with geometric designs, would be freshly painted before each ceremony. Why do you think that is?
• Teach the concept of “mask” poetry. In mask poetry, the poet puts on a mask (figuratively), becomes another person or thing, and speaks from that viewpoint, showing how the person or thing might think, feel, or act.
• Have students generate lists of adverbs, adjectives, and descriptive phrases for the masks students made in the art activity, and for the animals portrayed.
• Write mask poems from the point of view of the animal portrayed in the Molo mask.
• Have students dramatize the poems wearing the masks. If possible, record the dramatizations.
Subject Matter Connection
In reading and writing, attention to detail is important. By observing Molo Mask, students can put into practice the art of observation. These observation skills can be repeated and re-emphasized throughout the school year when students observe works of art, read, or prepare to write. Because the subjects of Molo Mask is familiar, students should be more comfortable about communicating their thoughts and verbalizing their ideas about this work, skills that carry over into both group and independent language arts practice activities and assessments.
Resources Available to Order
The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.
The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.