Masks and mask making provide ways for children to explore their personal identities and create new ones!
From Kenya to Sri Lanka to Haiti, children revel in the joy of expressing themselves through the mask-making process during our vulnerable children’s mask-making workshops.
In Haiti, mask-making is a traditional art form associated with indigenous ritual practices. Thus, when CPI went to Haiti for the first time, we had no intention of teaching kids about masks. They already knew. We hoped, however, they would learn how to make masks from a master – which is what happened. We provided (and continue to do so) practical support so that, once the kids learned the technique, they could get creative. This is play-based learning at its best!
Our program empowers girls by involving them in this male-dominated field. We’re proud to train and coach girls as Haiti’s first female mask-makers, breaking gender barriers.
The Importance of Training the Next Generation
Today, we run mask-making workshops and train a group of talented girls and boys who with our support might become masters of the art form which, in Haiti, is a viable profession. We are training the first female mask makers in Haiti!
In the end, of course, what mattered is that the kids and young adults have a good time, and feel valued and inspired. Some worked really hard in preparation for Carnival. They practiced perfectionism and some thought of themselves as budding artists.
In Haiti, masks are basic to the public celebration of Carnival (an institutionalized form of play, honored in the rich Haitian culture). This is largely due to the importance of voodoo, where masks can represent demons and the dead. Voodoo permeates civic life, despite the country’s Catholicism. Its rites are commonplace. Didier puts it this way: “We come from Africa. When we make zebra and lion masks, we are remembering Africa. It’s a way to teach the children where we are from.”
Through Didier, we hoped to help these kids recover a sense of normalcy after twin crises (a massive 2010 earthquake and subsequent hurricane) had upended their lives. In Haiti, mask-making is normal. For children, it’s a sort of rite de passage and a prominent feature of the culture at large.
Masks are basic to the public celebration of Carnival (an institutionalized form of play, honored in Haitian culture). This is largely due to the importance of voodoo, where masks can represent demons and the dead. Voodoo permeates civic life, despite the country’s Catholicism. Its rites are commonplace
Didier conducts his mask-making workshops in Jacmel, a small city nicknamed “City of Artists.” It holds one of Haiti’s most extravagant Carnivals, where art and performance are indistinguishable. The colors are intense. Every inhabitant (all 40,000), it seems, pays attention to costumes and making masks. Paint, sculpture, singing and dancing – old and new – pour into the streets.
The environment is also vivid and preternaturally green. Water is everywhere. It’s the solvent in paper maché.
Actually, the mask-maker’s medium is simple, mainly newspapers, clay, and glue – cheap, accessible materials readily available. You used what you have; you relied on spontaneous, pick-up ingenuity.
What CPI provides is mainly intangible. We facilitate; we help create the setting where vulnerable children learn about their culture through play-based learning.
Haitians take immense pride in Carnival, which draws on cultural traditions reflecting a pervasive creativity. Everyone is in on the act. In this sense, Carnival draws on the universal instinct to play, expressed as a public experience encompassing people of all ages.
The actual workshop was conducted outside Didier’s small house, underneath some trees with a group of young helpers.
About 125 children attended, aged about 6 to 15. When Didier provided lengthy, sometimes complicated instructions, the older kids helped the younger ones until everyone could work on their own.
Kids who saw themselves as artists would perform even the minutest operation – like painting a nose – over and over, until it was perfect. In Haiti, it was plausible to want to be an artiste, a little version of Didier who might become a bigger one. Didier conducted a mask-making workshop.
The children also made masks of individual faces. The experience involved a two-way, participatory process where each person put strips of plaster on the other’s face, and then laid gauze on their face. There was an element of trust involved as well, since one’s entire face was covered – you could only breathe by means of straws in your nose that had to be inserted correctly. The kids had to exercise care and display precision. Again, the play was tinged with seriousness – albeit the whole experience was a kind of anticipatory mini-Carnival. Once the masks were painted, they might resemble their makers – in effect, the kids could reproduce their image in a durable object. As we all know, kids’ dolls were until recently invariably white; a black kid could never see their own image in a plaything. But mask-making changed that, so that a kid could recreate their own image (however fantastically) in the mask. They could watch themselves literally create themselves as they might like to be, with a degree of skill sufficient to carry it off.
The experience was and is hugely affirmative. In acquiring a skill embedded in their culture, the children perpetuate the culture and enhanced their sense of what they can achieve. Didier and CPI has included girls in the the mask-making workshops since 2022, and we are proud to guide and train the first generation of female mask-makers in Haiti.
The children create complex objects that fused them to the culture and still allowed them to express their individuality and showcase their talent. In the Haitian context, play is a bridge between the self and history, the self and the world (especially the world of Carnival). Everyone is excited.
When CPI records local stories, it ensures that local people are involved and that the methods of recording and transcribing are reproducible at the local level. This involves finding and training local apprentices in skills such as film-making and instructing local teachers to pass on to students’ interest in cultural preservation. Students are encouraged to define their own relationship to oral tradition by creating works of art – paintings, puppets, masks, plays – that interpret that tradition and perpetuate it as a living practice. These works of art are also collected and exhibited, enabling the children to see the direct connection of their own creativity to that of the past.
Our mission is to foster greater opportunities for vulnerable children to play, learn, and develop.
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