TITLE: Mardi Gras Crocodile
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: New Orleans, Louisiana
DESCRIPTION: Leather crocodile mask
MAKER: Richard Thompson (Elmhurst, Illinois, 1957-2022)
CEREMONY: Mardi Gras
AGE: 2013
OTHER MATERIALS: acrylic paint

In Catholic practice, Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) is the last day of celebration of Carnival before the fasting period of Lent. In the United States, the holiday is nowhere more vigorously celebrated than in New Orleans, Louisiana. There, a two-week Carnival season terminating on Mardi Gras is celebrated with parades composed of elaborate costumes and masks, floats, marching bands, all organize by private “krewes” composed of public-spirited citizens dedicated to preserving the Mardi Gras tradition. Krewes tend to have a fairly constant structure of officers, who frequently ride horseback in handsome costumes and draped masks, float riders who chuck “throws,” or small gifts such as plastic beaded necklaces, toys, or mementos (usually with the krewe’s name and insignia) into the cheering crowds, and a guest “king” and “queen” of the krewe.

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is also typically celebrated with formal balls held by the krewes in honor of the king and queen, and to celebrate the season.  Mask wearing among street celebrants is common as well. Traditionally, Mardi Gras masks are made of formed and painted leather, and can represent any character from real life or fantasy.  In modern practice, cheap masks mass manufactured of sequined cloth or paper maché covered in dyed feathers have become common.

This specific mask was hand made by a skilled artisan in the Finger Lakes region of New York and brought to New Orleans during Mardi Gras to be sold.

Click above to watch a short documentary about Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2019 and 2020.


TITLE: Halloween Witch Mask
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: United States of America
DESCRIPTION: Latex Witch Mask
MAKER: Death Studios, LaPorte, Indiana
CEREMONY: Halloween
AGE: 2012
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; epoxy; synthetic hair

Halloween is one of the major secular festivals in the United States, celebrated on October 31st each year.  It originated in pre-Christian times, possibly among the ancient Celts, who practiced Samhain in late fall by wearing frightening costumes and lighting bonfires in mid-autumn to scare away ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III declared November 1st as a day to honor all the saints collectively. The celebration prior to this All Saints Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve (hence the shortened name, All Hallowe’en, eventually elided to Halloween), and involved many of the same traditions practiced by the Celts.

Halloween formerly had many traditions that varied by region.  In modern and relatively homogenized practice, Halloween generally has three main components: costumed parties, “trick-or-treating,” and haunted houses.  Costumed parties are the modern descendant of social activities designed to honor the saints and create solidarity in the community. Children’s parties typically involved games with prizes, such as bobbing for apples and carving pumpkins and other relatively dry squash into frightening “jack-o-lanterns” with candles inside for illumination.  Adult parties commonly involve less innocent games and elaborate decorations to create a scary mood.

Trick-or-treating is the children’s practice of wearing scary costumes to extort candy and other sweets from neighbors. Like roaming goblins, the monsters visiting the house would demand a treat or threaten to play a nasty trick on the neighbor. The threat is of course a formality, as sharing candy with trick-or-treaters is considered a mandatory practice for friendly and community-spirited neighbors. In modern practice, many children have abandoned the tradition of wearing frightening costumes and have leaned toward fantasy characters such as superheroes, princesses, and fairies.

Haunted houses are a relatively modern innovation.  They may be designed and staffed by volunteers or for profit, and generally take the form of a decrepit mansion haunted by ghosts, mad scientists, monsters, the walking dead, etc. The idea is to inspire terror and wonder in a factually safe environment.

In addition, many Americans celebrate by watching horror movies (the release of which Hollywood times to coincide with the Halloween season), and in some regions, most notably Greenwich Village, Manhattan in New York and Salem, Massachusetts, major costumed parades are organized each year.  In many cities, “zombie walks” composed of masses of costumed zombies have been organized as well.

Popular masks and costumes include devils, zombies, skeletons, vampires, werewolves, mummies, witches, pirates, political figures, and characters from popular culture, such as Frankenstein’s monster. However, Halloween costumes can include almost anything, including inanimate objects and abstractions.  The choice is limited only by the imagination of the masquerader.  Masks and costumes depicting offensive racial stereotypes, popular prior to the 1980s, are no longer widely used.

This specific mask was hand cast from a mold and painted by Death Studios, a maker of exceptional quality horror masks and props, located in Indiana, and sold under the name “Scream, Witch, Scream.” Death Studios continues to sell this and other latex Halloween masks.

Click above to watch a documentary about Halloween in the United States.


TITLE: Guro Gu Mask
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: Côte d’Ivoire
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Celebration; Entertainment; Funeral
AGE: ca. 2010
OTHER MATERIALS: oil-based paint

The Guro gu mask represents a beautiful young woman. It forms part of the trio of sacred masks with the zamble and zaouli. In the past, gu was the wife of zamble, but in modern rituals she is represented as the wife of his brother, zaouli. All three masks are cult objects to which sacrifices are periodically made to bring prosperity to the family that owns them and to drive away evil spirits.  They are danced for celebrations and as entertainment, and also at funerals and to honor ancestors.

This mask was made for the tourist trade, but it displays the exceptional skill and artistry typical of guro master carvers. The elaborate hair style is an important element of the gu‘s appeal.

For more on Guro masking traditions, see Eberhard Fischer, Guro (Prestel, 2008).


TITLE: Abelam Bapa Tagwa
TYPE: helmet mask
COUNTRY: Papua New Guinea
SUBREGION: East Sepik River, Maprik Area, Wosera
ETHNICITY: Melanesian (Abelam)
DESCRIPTION: Bapa Tagwa helmet mask
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.


TITLE: Commedia dell’Arte Brighella
TYPE: face mask
DESCRIPTION: Brighella mask
MAKER: Denis “Den” Durand (Versailles, France, 1960- )
CEREMONY: Commedia dell’Arte; Carnival
AGE: 1995
OTHER MATERIALS: pigment; elastic strap

The Commedia dell’Arte was a form of public entertainment that succeeded the classical Roman theater in Italy.  Like classical theater, Commedia performers wore leather masks to represent stock characters and often performed in amphitheaters to large audiences.  However, the Commedia differed in having only a very basic plot sketch, with most of the lines invented extemporaneously by the actors.  The Commedia‘s ability to stay topical and its frequent resort to vulgar humor, combined with the considerable talent of Italian troupes that traveled throughout Europe, made this form of theater extremely popular throughout the early 17th to late 19th centuries. Masked actors had to compensate for their inability to convey facial emotion through posture, gesture, and vocal nuance.

Brighella was long among the most popular stock characters of the Commedia. Brighella was generally portrayed as an amoral opportunist. He could be a thief, a hustler, a jack-of-all-trades, and a layabout.  His mask was always represented with a cruel hooked nose or a slightly piggish rounded nose, and usually a beard and mustache.

This specific Brighella comes from a skilled French maker trained at the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Appliqués et des Metiers d’Art in Paris.

To learn more about Commedia dell’Arte, see Pierre Louis Duchartre, The Italian Comedy (Dover Pubs., 1966).


TITLE: Yoruba Gelede Puppet Mask
TYPE: crest mask
DESCRIPTION: Gelede mask with a mounted puppet
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Gelede Society
AGE: ca. 1990s-2000s
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).


TITLE: Baining Asaraigi Mask
TYPE: helmet mask
COUNTRY: Papua New Guinea
SUBREGION: East New Britain Islands
ETHNICITY: Melanesian (Baining)
DESCRIPTION: Uramot Asaraigi Mask
MAKER: Unknown
FUNCTION: Adult Initiation; Agriculture; Celebration; Funeral; Spirit Invocation
AGE: ca. 1960s-1970s
MAIN MATERIAL: tapa cloth
OTHER MATERIALS: bamboo, vines; pigment from chewed roots and coconut husk ash

The Baining people live in eastern New Britain Island area known as the Gazelle Peninsula, in a mountainous tropical forest.  They are a Melanesian people closely akin to other groups in Papua New Guinea.  They traditionally live in small villages with dispersed political authority.  The Baining use their masks to unify the otherwise dispersed villagers, usually in celebrations of major events such as yam harvest, births, deaths, or adult initiation for both boys and girls.  Some dances are for the day time, mostly those centered around female tasks such as sowing, harvesting, and births.  Night dances center around male activities such as hunting.

The masks are mostly made of mulberry or breadfruit tree bark mashed and pounded into a cloth (“tapa cloth”) over bamboo frames.  Unlike most masking cultures, they make these masks specifically to be burned or discarded after the ceremony.  This specific mask, the asairigi, is used in day dances by the Uramot group of Baining people.  The black triangles represent tears of the spirit represented by the mask.  Day dance masks are made cooperatively by both men and women.


TITLE: Haida Dogfish
TYPE: face mask
SUBREGION: British Columbia
MAKER: Dalbert A. Weir (Masset, Queen Charlotte Islands, 1941- )
CEREMONY: Potlatch
AGE: 2007
MAIN MATERIAL: cedar wood

A potlatch is a culturally important ceremony among the coastal indigenous Americans of British Columbia, held on many different occasions.  It could be held to celebrate a family member’s change in social status, such as a marriage, birth, death, or initiation into adulthood.  It could also be held to restore a person’s prestige after a loss in dignity, such as falling out of a canoe or making a hunting error.  The ceremony could last for one day or as long as three weeks, depending on the occasion and the wealth of the giver.

A potlatch typically included three important components: a feast, entertainment, and gift giving to the guests.  The entertainment consisted of singing and masked dancing.  The more lavish the gifts, feast, and entertainment, the greater the prestige gained by the giver.  Because masks and costumes were expensive and time-consuming to make, larger and more elaborate masks raised the prestige of the potlatch giver.  The masks themselves represented totemic animals such as the killer whale, raven, beaver, or shark, or else mythical figures and beasts, such as the KomokwaDzunukwa or Bukwus. This mask represents the dogfish, a small relative of the shark that is an important totem for the Haida people.  The Haida believe that they had a female ancestor who could transform herself into a dogfish to experience the undersea world.

For more on masks of the coastal peoples of western Canada, see Peter MacNair, Robert Joseph & Bruce Grenville, Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd., 1998) and Edward Malin, A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast Indians (Portland: Timber Press, 1978).


TITLE: Busójárás Mask
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: Hungary
DESCRIPTION: Large Busó mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Busójárás (Farsang)
AGE: 1960s-1970s
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.


TITLE: Rey Moro Mask
TYPE: face mask
COUNTRY: Ecuador
SUBREGION: Latacunga
DESCRIPTION: Rey Moro (King Moor) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Fiesta de la Mama Negra
AGE: 1920s-1930s

The Fiesta de la Mama Negra (Festival of the Black Mama) is a celebration held in September and again in early November in Latacunga, Ecuador. The event originates in pre-colonial indigenous practices and was adapted to honor the Virgin of Mercy (Virgen de la Merced) after Catholic conversion, in thanks for her supposed  intervention to protect the population from eruptions from the nearby Cotopaxi volcano.  The festival has become one of the most important in Latacunga, and includes a parade (comparsa) featuring the Mama Negra prominently as an African version of Mary, mother of Jesus.

Other important masks include animals, the Rey Moro (King Moor, showing the influence of the Conquistadors), angels, clowns (payasos abanderados), shamans (huacos), and miscellaneous other characters.  This mask, dating back to the early twentieth century, most probably represents the Rey Moro, judging by the Islamic star on his forehead.