Six and seven are ages when children begin to really experiment with identity. There are certain articles of clothing they want to wear daily. They assert their own desires in a search for agency and differentiation. They develop likes and dislikes, challenging others to affirm or counter their thinking. (An almost daily conversation at one of our lunch tables, for example, begins with “Raise your hand if you like…”). Given this developmental exploration with identity, we start the year by reading many books on the topic, asking, “What makes you, you?” This means looking internally, at the things we think about and feel, but also externally, at our outward appearance and what that says about us.
From this place, our first art project this year was for the children to make self-portraits. They looked at the shape of their faces, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the color of their eyes. As this project was wrapping up, one of the students made a mask out of paper during worktime. And then she made another, and a classmate felt inspired to make their own mask. This was such a wonderful extension of our identity work. It was a way for the children to manipulate their identity, to take the concept of internal identity and make it external—taking our curiosities and interests, and turning them outward, showing them to the world. It’s also a way for children to experiment—to try on an identity and see what it feels like.
And so began our mask-making project. We looked at the some of the masks from Africa that hang in our school. We talked about the different reasons people wear masks. I brought in books about masks and the making of them. Qing brought in some masks from her own home.
At first, figuring out where and how to cut eyeholes was difficult, but the children soon grew quite adept at this. As Halloween approached there was a noticeable interest in spooky things—vampires and werewolves. We talked about secret identities, and so superhero masks were another common occurrence. There were princess masks, animal masks and masks that simply evolved as they were created, without any clear derivation. Overall, there was a strong sense of communal creation. The children were constantly being inspired by something someone else had created, and using those ideas to make their own. This is an important aspect in the formation of identity: our community. As the individuals in the group learn from each other, and share their thinking, they are expanding and evolving their own understanding of themselves.
As a class we talked about what to do with all these masks, and how to share them with the rest of the school. We came up with the idea of having a mask parade, which was fun but also not quite what we expected. In parading around the school, some of the children became quiet and reserved. The conflict within the children seemed to be a heightened self-consciousness. In retrospect, this makes sense, as the children were essentially presenting their identity to the wider community, which raises issues of social acceptance, and that is scary for a person of any age. The children also wanted to display their creations in the school, where many people could see them. So this is a provocation for you, the viewer, to really see who we are. We hope you enjoy our mask museum. These masks represent each individual artist, but also together present a group portrait of our 6-7s class and the things that make us who we are.