TITLE: Raï Mushroom Mask
TYPE: mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Nepal
SUBREGION: Middle Hills
ETHNICITY: Raï
DESCRIPTION: Shamanic Mushroom Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Healing; Purification
AGE: 1950s
MAIN MATERIAL: Fomes fomentarius arboreal mushroom
OTHER MATERIALS: pigment

Among the Raï people of the Middle Hills region of Nepal, the shaman plays an important social role as the channeler of spirits for healing, purification, and protection of those under his supervision. Masks help the shaman embody one of the spirits that surround the living world and use it to heal the sick, drive away evil influences, and guide villagers through changes in their lives (birth, adulthood, changes in social status, death) that might be affected by the spirit world. When hung in a house, the mask serves a protective function.  The Raï people are known for making shamanic and house protective masks from the parasitic arboreal mushroom, Fomes fomentarius also known as tinder fungus.

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TITLE: Abelam Bapa Tagwa
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Oceania
COUNTRY: Papua New Guinea
SUBREGION: East Sepik River, Maprik Area, Wosera
ETHNICITY: Melanesian (Abelam)
DESCRIPTION: Bapa Tagwa
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Tambaran Society
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Agriculture; Purification; Secret Society; Spirit Invocation
AGE: ca. 1940s
MAIN MATERIAL: woven plant fiber
OTHER MATERIALS: natural pigments

The Abelam people of the Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea use several types of masks, many of them intricately woven of plant fiber. The bapa tagwa shown here is a helmet mask, with small eye holes to create a fierce, pig-like appearance. The masks are worn with shaggy leaf costumes by members of the Tambaran Secret Society during adult initiation (circumcision) rituals for boys to invoke nature spirits. The masqueraders guard the ceremony with bamboo or bone weapons to clear away evil spirits and deter women and children from witnessing the secret ritual. Before the ceremony, the bapa tagwa is painted bright orange. Such masks may also be used in yam harvests.

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TITLE: Yoruba Gelede Mask
TYPE: crest mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Benin
ETHNICITY: Yoruba
DESCRIPTION: Gelede Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Gelede Society
AGE: ca. 1990s-2000s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: dyed cotton cloth; string; oil-based paint

The highly populous Yoruba people inhabit much of Nigeria and parts of Benin. The Gelede Society originates in cultural myths about Yemoja, the mother of all living things, who could not conceive children until she learned a dance with a wooden image on her head. The Gelede is named after Yemoja’s chubby daughter, and the dance therefore has a close connection with fertility rites. Nonetheless, the Gelede ceremony performs diverse functions in Yoruba society, including to pray for rain, purify the village of disease, to enlist spiritual help in wartime, and to honor the dead.

This mask is an example of a work made for sale to the tourist market.  It has been lightly but artificially aged to appear older. Nonetheless, the care and artistry of the mask make it suitable for ceremonial use. The puppet on the head has strings that pass through the wooden plank on which it sits, allowing the wearer to move his arms about by pulling the strings.  Most Gelede masks are static, but animated masks sometimes make an appearance, especially in the Efe dance, which satirizes and ridicules immoral behavior.

For more on the Gelede ceremony, see Babatunde Lawal’s incomparable monograph, The Gelede Spectacle (University of Washington Press, 1996).

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TITLE: Busójárás Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Europe
COUNTRY: Hungary
SUBREGION: Mohács
ETHNICITY: Šokci
DESCRIPTION: Busó
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Busójárás (Farsang)
AGE: 1960s-1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: ram horns; plant fiber; string; pigment

Busójárás is the Hungarian festival held annually in Mohács to celebrate the end of winter. Although the event has a pre-Christian origin as a ritual to frighten away the winter, it has been adapted to coincide with Christian ideology and timed to end with Carnival (Farsang). Masqueraders parade in devil masks of the kind shown here, wearing goat-skin suits and carrying staves or playing traditional folk music.

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TITLE: Kokushiki-Jo
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Kyodomen Kokushiki-Jo Mask
MAKER: Habu Mitsuma
CEREMONY: Okina (翁)
FUNCTION: agriculture; purification; spirit invocation
AGE: 1960s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: animal hair; pigment

The Okina is an ancient Japanese dance ritual that uses forms of mask known as kokushiki-jo and hakushiki-jo. These are among the oldest masked characters in Japanese ceremonies, originating as folk masks (kyodomen) used in ancient sarugaku (“monkey music”) theatre (circa 1000-1300 CE) and migrating to the formal stage for use between noh plays. The kokushiki-jo and haukshiki-jo both represent old men with divine qualities, but with slight differences in appearance. Unlike noh theatre, the Okina dance is mute, and it is performed by a kyōgen performer rather than a noh actor.

The Okina plays an important ceremonial role in the Shinto religion, because the kokushiki-jo performs the Sanbasō, a prayer-dance celebrating the emperor’s peaceful rain and seeking blessings for a bountiful harvest.


To watch a short documentary about Japanese Nogaku (Noh drama and Kyogen plays), click above.

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TITLE: Nafana Bedu Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Côte d’Ivoire
ETHNICITY: Nafana
DESCRIPTION: Male Bedu Association Male Plank Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Secret Society; Purification; Celebration; Funereal; Agriculture
AGE: early 2000s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin; pigment

The Nafana people of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana have developed a Bedu Secret Society only in the last century. It is probably a successor to the Sakrobundi Secret Society banned by the British due to the Society’s function of violently punishing supposed sorcerers.  The Bedu society is charged with the less malignant function of village purification during a month-long new year’s celebration annually, as well as during harvest festivals and funerals.  The bedu itself represents a mythical ox-like beast that, in Nafana myth, cured a sick child and later disappeared into the bush.  Although these masks are worn over the face, their exceptional size requires them to be made of relatively light wood.

Bedu masks come in both genders, with the male masks (such as this one) having horns, and the female having a circle or disc on top. Most such masks of either gender are painted in kaolin clay with abstract geometrical patterns, checker marks and jagged fins being favored.  Sometimes red, blue, or black pigments are used as well.

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TITLE: Dayak Demon Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Oceania
COUNTRY: Indonesia
SUBREGION: Borneo
ETHNICITY: Dayak
DESCRIPTION: Dayak Demon Bukong
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Unknown
FUNCTION: Agriculture; Purification
AGE: 1880s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: pigment

Not much is known about the masked ceremonies of the South Kalimantan region of Borneo. This mask dates to the late 19th century and represents a demon.  Stylistically, it shows traces of Hindu influence from Javanese settlers, transmitted to the settlers from Indian traders in previous centuries.  Such masks were most probably used to drive away evil spirits from the village during important ceremonies, such as funerals, and from crop fields.

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TITLE: Songye Face Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of Congo
ETHNICITY: Songye
DESCRIPTION: Bambudye Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Healing; Purification; Secret Society; Social Control; War Preparation
AGE: 1990s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin

The Songye people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) are closely related to the Luba people of the same region.  Both use a variety of face masks for social control and village purification.  The Songye were formerly a warlike people and used their masks to frighten enemies, as well as to frighten away evil spirits from the village or from a sick individual plagued by them.  The masks are danced by secret societies to protect the village and are usually worn with a full body costume of raffia.  Songye masks are typically characterized by striations carved into the face, representing the facial scarification used by Songye warriors.

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TITLE: Cherokee Bison Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: North Carolina
ETHNICITY: Cherokee
DESCRIPTION: Booger mask in the form of a bison
MAKER: Allen Long (1917-1983), Cherokee, North Carolina
CEREMONY: Booger Dance
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: pigment

In the Eastern Cherokee Nation, the booger (tsu’nigadu’li) dance forms an important part of the winter celebration to discourage evil spirits from disrupting the coming growing season. The boogers themselves represent the evil spirits, and they traditionally portrayed grotesque faces seeking to fight, chase women, and create general havoc. Following colonization, the booger dancers focused their misdeeds especially on satirizing the insolence, foolishness, and lust of European colonists toward the Cherokee women.

Booger masks could be made of wood, gourds, or carved wasp nests.  This specific mask was made by a famed carver, Allen Long.

For more on Cherokee masked dance, see Frank G. Speck & Leonard Broom, Cherokee Dance and Drama (University of Oklahoma Press 1951).

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