TITLE: Child’s Rabbit Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Kyoto
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Usagi (Rabbit) Mask for a Child
MAKER: Unknown maker in Sagano, Kyoto
FUNCTION: Agriculture; Celebration; Purification
AGE: 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: washi (Japanese paper)
OTHER MATERIALS: newspaper; water-based paint; adhesive; string

Masks made from washi (thin but tough Japanese paper) are traditionally used by ordinary Japanese people during popular summer festivals in Kyoto Prefecture, such as Otaue Matsuri (rice planting festival) and rice harvest festival. They typically represent a lucky totem, such as the rabbit (usagi), dragon (doragon), raccoon dog (tanuki), or monkey (saru). Most often, such masks are worn by children, although adults may join in the fun as well.   The inscription reads: “Protection from Evil Mask, Saga.”

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TITLE: Kitsune (Fox) Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Kyoto
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Washi Kitsune (Fox) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
FUNCTION: Agriculture; Celebration; Purification
AGE: 1960s
MAIN MATERIAL: washi (Japanese paper)
OTHER MATERIALS: water-based paint; silk cord

Kitsune, or fox, masks are popular in Japan and worn in many types of theater and Shinto celebrations. Wood and kanshitsu masks are used in theater; paper masks like this one are used primarily by the public during festivals such as rice harvest or Oji’s Kitsune no Gyoretsu (Fox Parade) on New Year’s Eve. The fox’s popularity is related to its role as a shape-shifting messenger of the god Inari, protector of rice and fertility. The fox can act benignly or malevolently, bringing a rich harvest or wealth, or stealing these things.

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TITLE: Tajikarao No-mikoto Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Miyazaki
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Tajikarao No-mikoto Mask
MAKER: Hiroaki Kudo (Amano Iwato, Takachiho, 1961- )
CEREMONY: Kagura
AGE: 2019
MAIN MATERIAL: hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint

Kagura is a form of music and dance from the Shinto religion. The Kagura involves maikata, or masked dancers with elaborate costumes and wigs, and hayashikata, or musicians playing the odaiko (large drum), kodaiko (small drum), chochigane (Japanese cymbals), and yokobue (a Japanese flute).

Kagura dance is not totally abstract, but rather is designed to tell a story, usually of Shinto origin.  The performance of a dance is intended not just to celebrate a holiday or entertain an audience, but as a religious duty to pray to Shinto gods for a good harvest or fish catch, or protection from disease or natural disaster. Kagura is now commonly performed at temples and in farming villages after the rice harvest to thank the gods for their bounty.

This mask represents the Shinto god Ameno Tajikarao No-mikoto, who created Mt. Togakushi by taking the solid rock door leading to a cave where the sun goddess Amaterasu had hid herself and throwing it toward Nagano.  Amaterasu had denied the world light by hiding in a cave after her godly sibling annoyed her, and Tajikarao, the god of strenght and sport, both restored the sun to the world and created a new mountain. The dance reenacts this heroic act.

For more on Japanese Kagura, see David Petersen, An Invitation to Kagura: Hidden Gem of the Traditional Japanese Performing Arts (2007).


Click above to watch a short documentary about the Kagura ceremony of Japan.

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TITLE: Bugaku Korobase Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Nara Prefecture
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Bugaku Mask of Korobase (Crane)
MAKER: Nakabo Ryudo (Nara, 1940- )
CEREMONY: Bugaku
AGE: 2019
MAIN MATERIAL: polyester resin
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; silk cord; brass bell

Bugaku is an official court dance of Japan, dating back to about 500 C.E.  During the Heian period, Bugaku dances were so central to protocol that nearly all ceremonies and festivals included them. The dance was especially important in appeasing angry gods, purifying the village, and petitioning the gods for rain or a good harvest.  The dance is performed to the music of drums and flutes. The dancers enter the stage singly in succession, then dance together in pairs, in synchronicity to varying tempos. Each dance has its own mask and is named after the mask.

Bugaku masks were sometimes made of wood and sometimes from kanshitsu, a composite of sawdust and resin shaped over a mold. In modern times, Shinto temples have increasingly requested mask makers to produce thick polyester resin masks that are harder and more durable than wood or kanshitsu, as well as easier to reproduce once the mold has been sculpted,

The Korobase dance, also called Tsurumai (Crane Dance), is a slow, quiet dance involving four dancers in identical masks. The dancers represent cranes, the calls of the cranes represented by the bells hanging from their beak tips. The dance supposedly derives from two Chinese legends.  In one, eight Chinese recluses living on Mt. Konron come down into the city, and in the other, cranes dance on the beach to the music of a Chinese zither.  In the dance, the dancers form a square and do a slow, coordinated series of movements. The climax occurs when they join hands and sweep around in a circle, evoking with the dark blue sleeves of their robes the take off and flight of the cranes.

For more on Bugaku masks, see Kyōtarō Nishikawa, Bugaku Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd. 1971).


Click above to watch a short documentary film about the Bugaku dance of Japan.

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TITLE: Bugaku Sanju (?) Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Nara Prefecture
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: Bugaku Mask, probably representing Sanju
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Bugaku
AGE: late 19th century
MAIN MATERIAL: hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood
OTHER MATERIALS: plaster; water-based paint

Bugaku is an official court dance of Japan, dating back to about 500 C.E.  During the Heian period, Bugaku dances were so central to protocol that nearly all ceremonies and festivals included them. The dance was especially important in appeasing angry gods, purifying the village, and petitioning the gods for rain or a good harvest.  The dance is performed to the music of drums and flutes. The dancers enter the stage singly in succession, then dance together in pairs, in synchronicity to varying tempos. Each dance has its own mask and is named after the mask.

Bugaku masks were sometimes made of wood, like this one, and sometimes made from kanshitsu, a composite of sawdust and resin shaped over a mold. This mask was heavily danced in the late 19th century, and probably represents Sanju, a red-faced Japanese military hero. This is a highly martial dance, with the dancer wearing a helmet, a sword, and a long halberd (naginata) or spear (yari), and assisted by several young assistants (traditionally six, but often reduced now to four or two).

For more on Bugaku masks, see Kyōtarō Nishikawa, Bugaku Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd. 1971).


Click above to watch a short documentary film about the Bugaku dance of Japan.

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TITLE: Bugaku King Rangryo
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Japan
SUBREGION: Nara Prefecture
ETHNICITY: Japanese
DESCRIPTION: King Rangryo Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Bugaku
AGE: ca. 1910
MAIN MATERIAL: hinoki (Japanese cypress) wood
OTHER MATERIALS: plaster; water-based paint; brass-sheeting; hardware; animal hair; silk cords

Bugaku is an official court dance of Japan, dating back to about 500 C.E.  During the Heian period, Bugaku dances were so central to protocol that nearly all ceremonies and festivals included them. The dance was especially important in appeasing angry gods, purifying the village, and petitioning the gods for rain or a good harvest.  The dance is performed to the music of drums and flutes. The dancers enter the stage singly in succession, then dance together in pairs, in synchronicity to varying tempos. Each dance has its own mask and is named after the mask.

Bugaku masks were sometimes made of wood, like this one, and sometimes made from kanshitsu, a composite of sawdust and resin shaped over a mold. This mask was danced in the early 20th century.  It is similar to a much older one in Nara, used at the Kasuga Taisha for festivals.  The chin is attached by silk cords to allow the mouth to swing freely with the dancer’s movements.

The Rangryo mask represents a young Chinese king who was renowned for his beauty, but who could not intimidate his enemies. In battle, he donned a hideous mask surmounted by a dragon to hide his face and frighten his enemies. The dance is a solo dance; it is highly martial and more active than many other Bugaku dances.

For more on Bugaku masks, see Kyōtarō Nishikawa, Bugaku Masks (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd. 1971).


Click above to watch a short documentary film about the Bugaku dance of Japan.

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TITLE: Pende Giphogo (Kipoko) Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of the Congo
ETHNICITY: Eastern Pende
DESCRIPTION: Giphogo (Kipoko) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Mukanda Ritual
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Protection; Purification; Social Control; Spirit Invocation; Status
AGE: ca. 1980s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: cloth; string; pigment

The Pende people have many different kinds of masks they wear, especially at adult initiation rituals and funerals. The word giphogo (or kipoko) means “sword wielder” and is a symbol of power among the Eastern Pende. The mask is kept in the chief’s home, and only chiefs are allowed to authorize dance with this type of mask on the occasion of initiations and rituals of the ancestor cult of the Eastern Pende. It represent the village chief as intermediary between the living and the dead, and its uses include protection from evil spirits; prayers or thanks for successful harvests and tribal fertility; to identify and punish sorcerers; and adult initiation during mukanda rituals. As he dances, the kipoko dancer makes semicircular kicks to protect the village against evil spirits or sorcerers and to purify their illnesses.

The masquerader carries one or two flywhisks made of animal hair, which are used to mimic agricultural work or to purify the village grounds.

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TITLE: Kwele Helmet Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Gabon
ETHNICITY: Kwele
DESCRIPTION: Ekuk Helmet Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Be’ete Society
AGE: ca. 1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: wood
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin clay; pigment; raffia fiber

The Kwele, also known as Kwese, people of Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo now live between the Dja and Ivindo rivers. Social control is exercised by the Be’ete Secret Society, which uses masks to adult initiation rituals, funerals, and protection of the village from malicious spirits.  The masks embody protective bush spirits, with the antelope a dominant presence among them.  Kaolin clay is nearly always used in Kwele masks, because its white color has spiritual meaning to the Kwele.

This specific mask represents an ekuk, or forest spirit, of a lion.

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TITLE: Yaqui Chapayeka Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Mexico
SUBREGION: Sonora
ETHNICITY: Yaqui
DESCRIPTION: Chapayeka Mask
MAKER: Angel Almada González (Tepahui Quiriego, 1922-2019)
CEREMONY: Holy Week (Fariseo Dance-Drama)
FUNCTION: celebration; purification; social control
AGE: 2015
MAIN MATERIAL: goat leather and fur
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; plastic sheet; synthetic string

The Yaqui and related Mayo people inhabit the desert in the Mexican state of Sonora and southern Arizona. Their religious beliefs are a syncretic version of traditional animist practices and Jesuitical Catholicism. The fariseos (Mayo) or chapayekas (Yaqui) are an important society in both communities and are mainly active during the three months surrounding Holy Week. The fariseos in theory represent Pharisees, or the Jews (judios) who supposedly condemned Jesus (it was actually the Romans), and are always represented by leather helmets with wood or painted faces.

Fariseos are organized by a society, with each celebration having a fariseo cabo (head Pharisee) who goes unmasked and organizes the dancers. To join the fariseo society, an applicant must be endorsed by a godfather (padrino) who is already a fariseo, and a godmother (padrina) who is a singer.

Fariseos usually begin dancing for several hours at the houses where idols of saints are kept, and then they come to dance in the town ramadas in the plaza, where the pasko’olas, deer dancer, and coyote dancers have been dancing.

In some village ceremonies, the fariseos, representing evil, repeatedly attack the church and are repelled by Christians throwing flowers. In others, unmasked fariseos represent the Roman persecutors of Christ bearing wooden swords and have battles with masked Christian caballeros (cavalry). Ultimately, the fariseos are defeated and convert to Christianity.  In still other villages, the fariseos follow the procession of the icons of the church and mimic searching for Jesus. Dancing as a fariseo is believed to put the dancer in the good graces of Jesus. When the masked fariseos dance, the dancer holds a rosary with a cross in his mouth during the ceremony to ward off evil.

Normally, all fariseo masks except two are burned after Holy Week. More are made in preparation for the following year. The two that are preserved are kept to be buried with any member of the fariseo society who happens to die during that year. Once worn, the masks are considered sacred objects, because the fariseos pray while dancing.

During Holy Week, the fariseo society takes over most of the legal, police, and religious ceremonies of the Yaqui and Mayo villages. For example, working was traditionally prohibited on Ash Wednesday, and anyone caught working would be brought before the fariseo cabo and fined or, if he or she had no money, forced to drag a heavy mesquite cross along the procession route. At Lent, the fariseos go from house to house, collecting donations for the Fiesta de la Gloria and other religious celebrations.

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TITLE: Huniyam Yakka Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: Asia
COUNTRY: Sri Lanka
ETHNICITY: Sinhalese
DESCRIPTION: Huniyam Yakka (Prince of Black Sorcery) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Kolam Natima Dance Drama
AGE: 1950s
MAIN MATERIAL: kadura (Strychox nux vomica) wood
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; dyed cotton cloth

The masked dance of Sri Lanka developed from shamanic healing and purification rituals, and  split along two lines.  The first, Yakun Natima, is the healing dance performed by a shaman.  Each demon (yakku) represents a specific disease or ailment, and to invoke the demon, the shaman wears a mask depicting the symptoms or symbols of the disease. When performing as a group, a character known as Kola Sanni Yakka, who is a kind of amalgamation of all diseases, presides over the demons.

The second line, Kolam Natima is a storytelling dance drama involving 40 masked characters of very diverse types. The story originates in a myth of a pregnant Sinhalese queen who develops a craving to see masked dances. She begs her husband, the king, to arrange it, but he knows of no such dances. At his request, the god Sekkria, one of the four guardian gods, carves the masks and teaches the people how to perform the dance. They perform for the royal audience, and the baby is consequently born strong and healthy. The stories told with the masks are not a single cohesive narrative, but a series of stories that merge Sinhalese folk traditions with Buddhist Jataka stories, which tell of the former lives of the Buddha.

A Kolam Natima performance begins with ritual addresses to gods and the Buddha. What follows is a prologue showing brief stock, mostly comical, scenes from traditional Sri Lankan society.  Finally, the king and the queen in very large masks enter with their retinue, whence they watch the dance.  The performance ends with the dance, typically involving Gara demons, Nagas (snake demons) and the Garuda (a Naga-eating god-bird) who were eventually reconciled by the Buddha. The performance is intended to purify the village and to spread prosperity.

This mask probably represents Huniyam Yakka, the prince of black sorcery, from the Kolam Natima.

For more on the masks of Sri Lanka, see Alain Loviconi, Masks and Exorcisms of Sri Lanka (Paris: Éditions Errance, 1981).

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