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: Bwa Nwantantay
TYPE: mask
COUNTRY: Burkina Faso
DESCRIPTION: Nwantantay Plank Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Adult Initiation; Agricultural; Funeral
AGE: ca. 1990s
OTHER MATERIALS: kaolin; pigment

The Bwa people inhabit the Black Volta River region of Burkina Faso. Their masks are used by secret societies in adult initiation rituals, to celebrate important agricultural events, and to escort the souls of the dead to the next world. Bwa masks have a distinctive look, with geometric patterns predominating, and large concentric circles for eyes, to represent the vigilance of the spirit represented by the mask (reminiscent of the owl). The geometric striations are symbolic representations of important abstract moral principles.

Bwa plank masks such as this one are frequently extraordinarily large and heavy. This mask is nearly six feet (1.8 meters) tall. The masquerader typically wears a suit of thick raffia fiber, covering the entire body in a bushy heap.  Unlike a secret society masks, the Bwa masks are owned by specific families and can be danced by anyone.


TITLE: Yoruba Gelede Mask
TYPE: crest mask
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 Weir
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
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.


TITLE: Yangju Byeolsandae Nojang Mask
TYPE: face mask
SUBREGION: Yangju, Gyeonggi Province
DESCRIPTION: Nojang (Buddhist Monk) Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Byeolsandae Drama
FUNCTION: celebration; entertainment
AGE: 1980s
OTHER MATERIALS: cotton hood; paper; paint

Sandae noli is the type of masked drama in Gyeonggi Province and the Seoul region.  The drama is accompanied by music played on a small samhyeon yukgak ensemble, consisting of three aerophones, one chordophone, and two membranophones. The full performance involves dozens of characters in different masks.

This mask represents an old, corrupt Buddhist monk, or nojang, who has a fondness for liquor and women. The black color of the mask is meant to convey the monk’s advanced age.

For more on Korean masquerade, see Jeon Kyung-wook, Korean Mask Dance Dramas: Their History and Structural Principles (Gyeonggi-do, Rep. of Korea: Youlhwadang Pub. 2005).


TITLE: Maringuilla Mask
TYPE: face mask
SUBREGION: Michoacán
ETHNICITY: Purépecha
DESCRIPTION: Maringuilla (Little Mary) Mask
MAKER: Manuel Horta Ramos, Tocuaro
CEREMONY: Pastorela
AGE: 2015
OTHER MATERIALS: plaster; maque; plastic eyelashes; metal and enamel earrings

The Pastorela is the ceremonial dance drama of Michoacán state in Mexico. Pastorelas, performed in February during the Shrovetide season, are primarily religious in significance. The main characters of the Dance of the Shepherds are the Devil, the Archangel Michael, shepherds, and a hermit (who paradoxically represents the ancestors of the performers).  The drama revolves around the attempts of Lucifer and his demon minions to steal the baby Jesus.  Other dramas performed on the occasion include the Dance of the Negritos (dance of the little blacks), relating to the importation of African slaves into Mexico by the Spaniards, and which includes an army of elegantly dressed “little Maries” (Maringuillas), like the one represented by this mask, and feos, or ugly clowns.

This mask was carved by Manuel Horta, one of a famous extended family of carvers from the town of Tocuaro, in 2015.


TITLE: Kokushiki-Jo
TYPE: face mask
DESCRIPTION: Kyodomen Kokushiki-Jo Mask
MAKER: Habu Mitsuma
CEREMONY: Okina (翁)
FUNCTION: agriculture; purification; spirit invocation
AGE: 1960s
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.