Afrofuturism Mask


Behold! The final result of my Afrofuturism upcycling design project! I thought about a proper title for the mask for some time but ultimately decided to keep the name simple and straightforward (in my somewhat limited reading on the cultural significance of masks in Africa, I learned that giving a mask a name can sometimes be a way to invite bad spirits). Pictured above is my favorite picture of the mask in the dark, see below for a more well lit picture of the mask.



Afrofuturism, as the name suggests, combines the cultural heritage of many different African countries and communities with modern digital technological design. Most oftenly, Afrofuturism uses traditional  decoration, bodypaint, jewelry, dress, and shapes as basis for the subject matter and incorporates the bright neon colors and hard edges of futurism as a motif.

Afrofuturism uses contrast between the natural shapes and colors often found in traditional African aesthetics with the very industrial hard edges and electric color palette. However, similar to the cyberpunk aesthetic, the contrasting elements are so closely meshed together that the two become a new aesthetic that compliments the individual elements, rather than clashing.

While African persons are usually the focal point of Afrofuturistic art, the aesthetic extends beyond just fashion, once again pulling from African traditionalism as inspiration. By far the most widely recognized use of the Afrofuturism aesthetic are in the Marvel Black Panther movies, featuring the hidden away science fiction city of Wakanda.

The reason I chose to do Afrofuturism for my upcycling project is primarily due to two factors: African traditionalism heavily uses natural and simple materials (easy for me to upcycle), and I love futuristic cyber aesthetics. When I learned that the upcycling project needed to adhere closely to a defined aesthetic, I struggled to think of anything that can be done with common household materials and not subtract from the target aesthetic. For example, it might be pretty challenging to follow a Steampunk aesthetic that strictly uses metals when I only have access to carboard, fabrics, and plastics. So I knew I needed an aesthetic that lended itself to simple upcycled materials; I started with the materials I had and found an aesthetic, rather than the other way around.

My creative spin on Afrofuturism follows a pattern of material equivalence that connects historic African traditional and tribal materials to modern engineered and manufactured materials. Since traditional historic African art was/is handmade with natural materials the artist had/has around them, I wanted to mimic that process in my project. Where a traditional African art piece would use wood, I use cardboard in the goal of invoking the same traditional design but with futuristic (modern household) materials. Instead of carved beads I use LED lights, instead of hairs and fibers I use 3D printed filament ‘spaghetti’ (tangled plastic filament waste).

One of the most instantly recognizable artifacts of African history and culture is their traditional style masks, and that was my artifact of choice for this project. African masks come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and are often crafted from many different materials, making it a good selection for this upcycle aesthetic. Below are three different masks of inspiration: two real world examples, and the third an afrofuturistic rendering of a mask.

Some of my favorite projects have always been headwear, mostly helmets but now a mask. I think the reason I enjoy doing them so much is that you can convey so much on a headpiece, and we as humans biologically recognize a lot in the face and head. Potentially the most universally recognized assortment of shapes are two dots and a curve; a smiley face!

Pictured above are some of the sketches I have done to try to imagine what a futuristic African mask might look like. The upcycled materials is the largest driving factor behind the design, choosing modern engineered materials that mimic natural resources traditionally used in mask making.

The material gathering process was somewhat backwards in that I first looked at what I had on hand to upcycle, and then planned out the logistics to make the design a reality.

From left to right: Big cardboard box good for panels, 3D printing filament waste, 3D printing filament spools, and a bunch of colorful LED lights. Not pictured are three sheets of polycarbonate I got from the ITLL Manufacturing Center, these clear sheets of plastic when sanded do a really good job at refracting the light of the LED’s and making the lights really pop. In order to achieve a really good finished look, I had the cardboard paneling laser cut, and therefore had to do a small amount of computer aided design.

The Afrofuturism Mask being comprised of less than ten major parts, I had a correct guess that more time would be spent in getting the design just how I want it than the actual assembly of the piece. The pieces of cardboard were laser cut to make things easier, but with a slight complication. I had not considered the thickness of the carboard I was getting laser cut, and the pieces I used for the mouth were much thicker than the top panels, and the laser cutter could not cut all the way through. The mouth pieces required a bit of post processing with a box cutter, and that super crisp edge that laser cutting brings was somewhat lost. I soldered 3 sets of LED lights in series to nine volt batteries, and used coarse grit sandpaper to ‘fog’ the polycarbonate plastic.

Assembling the pieces into single structure was actually a challenge I had not anticipated, the weight was so great in the combined product that it wanted to tear itself in apart. To remedy this, I used screws towards the center of the mask, and strung wire between the panels in the top. One of the last processes was the addition of the ‘horns’, I call them horns since that was the goal in the above drawing, but that idea proved to heavy to be practical. I compromised on this feature and instead used a single spool split in half, almost looking like crescent moons. Finally, and probably the most fun was attaching the filament waste, or ‘hair’ to the mask, which I simply did with hot glue.

Likely evident from the picture above, the back of the mask is a mess at best, and given more time I would definitely would like to clean it up and organize the wiring a bit. Even adding a back layer of a simple sheet of fabric would do well.

My evaluation of the project:

Afrofuturism Mask is a decorative piece emulating the cultural aspects of traditional African masks, while using modern materials and design tropes to flex the traditional cultural aesthetics. Instead of natural curves and soft features often found in African masks, the precision edges and sharp corners make the mask appear robotic. The use of lighting builds onto the futuristic tone of the mask, but is balanced with recognizable traits such as hair, eyes and mouth. The spools on top of the mask continue the overall symmetry of the mask upward, and could be recognized as headwear or horns.

Functionally, there are some features that could have been done better with the lessons learned in assembly. I had the idea of the being able to wear the mask, but this was ultimately unrealistic with the structure of the piece so fragile and weighty. Additionally, the reverse side of the mask is nearly unpresentable, but that is why it is the reverse side. The clean and crisp effect of the laser cut cardboard was perfect on the face panels, but unachieved on the mouth pieces. The lighting and refraction of light is potentially the biggest functional success.

Artistically, I feel more satisfied in the project as I followed the above drawing very close and achieved the same feeling that I got from looking at the drawing; even more so as a real thing I can hold in my hands. The lighting of the mask gives it a new depth, and while the color choice of yellow and red was made due to material limitations, I think given a full spectrum of color I would still choice yellow and red again.


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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Dear Barrett I hope this message reaches you well,

    To start I am thoroughly impressed with your upcycle design which incorporates a unique aesthetic along with the masterfully talented engineering skill base of which you have proven through this piece. I believe you have truly embodied the essence of upcycling through your creative use of different materials that have been incorporated into your project. To say I was moved by your piece would be a understatement; your take on Afrofuturism is something to be proud of and I commend you for all your hard work.


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