At just 3.5 years old, Mahogany Ivaska is learning a lot about black history, including about Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad that helped free the slaves. On Feb. 23, she learned to honor another aspect of black history, by way of making her own African clay mask at a special workshop at the North Bergen Main Library.
Hers was called, “Glitter Sparkles.”
“We love to do stuff for Black History Month,” said Inuka, Ivaska’s mother, at the workshop, after her daughter created her masterpiece. “She loves doing art and so I thought this would be great for her.”
The workshop also introduced various songs and dances popular in African culture to North Bergen youth. Ivy Omere, a British actress born to Nigerian parents, who lives in Hasbrouck Heights, led the children in creating their masks with their palms.
Myriam Akrout, 10, didn’t really put a whole lot of thought into her mask. But she said she was excited when she first heard of the workshop. “I just did random stuff,” Akrout said, showing her mask. “When I get home, I might give it to my sister.”
Omere, who said that Black History Month is her busiest time of year, said that masks play an important role in African culture.
She singled out the Benin Bronzes from her parents’ homeland. The Bronzes were artifacts produced by Nigeria’s Benin Empire, made of various brass types. With many created between the 15th and 16th Centuries, British forces seized many of the masks during the Benin Expedition of 1897. However, they have since ended up in museum collections worldwide.
“They go back, since the Ninth Century,” Omere said of the masks. Other African cultures wear masks for events such as initiations, crop harvesting, and ritual ceremonies.
Omere also brought her clay expressions of Benin bronzes to the workshop, and had pictures of brass sculptures for Obas, a title for certain rulers in Nigeria.
She said she wanted to share a different culture the kids may not have seen before. “I think it’s just important to share our stories with one another,” she said.
She also argues that developing familiarity between groups can help marginalized ones. “Not to be too political, but in the life of imperialism, there’s always a tendency for the imperialists to negate or pretend that the person who has been conquered doesn’t have a history,” she said. “So it’s important to share our stories and show our common humanity, in very simple ways. Everyone has a story, everyone has a past, everyone has a culture that should be respected.”
Hannington Dia can be reached at email@example.com