After the harvest is in, the Dogon cliff dwellers of Mali celebrate in elaborate, costumed rituals and, if there's a boy of about 12 in the family, he goes off with his father to cut down a tree and shape the wood into a mask to wear to the festival.
"We can't work in wood in 1 1/2 hours -- it would take days," Alicia Taylor tells a group of six- to 12-year-olds who have come to a free workshop at the National Museum of African Art to make African masks. Instead of chopped-down trees, the children are issued paper bags, cardboard, raffia and crayons -- the wherewithal for an American version of the Dogon rabbit mask. When they've trimmed their supermarket-size brown bags down to fit their faces, it's time to put the eyes in -- or out.
"You'll be dancing and moving around so you'll need to see," says Taylor. "Get a partner and tell each other where your eyes are and mark them with a crayon. Then take off the mask and punch the eye holes with a scissors. You are the carver. Think about making the eyes triangles or squares. Make your mask as interesting as if you are at the bottom of a cliff in Mali."
Inspired by the slides of Mali they've just seen, the kids unleash their creativity and the paper bags are quickly transformed into masks, each one bearing the stamp of its creator's imagination. Ayanna Cooke, 11, shapes the eyes into pentagons. Aisha Randall, nine, holds a red crayon sideways and rubs it on the bag for a batik-like effect. Carl Lee, 11, cuts triangles eyes and echoes the triangle motif in magenta, black and brown-bag brown. To make the bag stiffer and to provide built-in eyebrows and noses, Taylor gives each child a piece of cardboard cut in the shape of an M. These are glued into place on the bag and quickly integrated into the design with crayons.
"A rabbit mask wouldn't be a rabbit mask without ears," says Taylor, handing out precut cardboard ears. "But unlike the Dogon masks, ours are going to flop a bit."
When the ears are glued on and caryoned, front and back, it's time to glue on strips of raffia for the mane. If you've never seen a rabbit with a mane, go to Mali -- or one of the National Museum of African Art's workshops. You'll see lots of rabbits four or five feet tall with garishly colored faces and ears, pentagon-shaped eyes and flaring manes. And if you look down at their feet, you'll find they're wearing sandals or Nike sneakers. MAKING AFRICAN ART: The next children's workshop at the National Museum of African Art is "Coil, Pinch and Pummel: African Ceramics for Kids" Saturday, July 17, at 1. It's free to children six to 12. Advance registration is required. Call 287-2940, ext. 41 on Monday, Wednesday ro Friday between 9:30 and 11:30 or 3 and 5. To make an African mask at home, all you need is a brown bag, some cardboard, crayons, glue and raffia or strips of colored paper. For a free instruction sheet, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to the Education Department, National Museum of African Art, 318 A Street NE, Washington, D.C. 20002.