Central American Masks
Central and South America Central and Southern America have a rich masking history. One of the earliest examples dates from 10000 to 12000 BC. It is a ... vertebra of an extinct lama ...
Central and South America
Central and Southern America have a rich masking history. One of the earliest examples dates
from 10000 to 12000 BC. It is a fossilised vertebra of an extinct lama representing the head of
a coyote. More recent records begun during the conquest of the area, contemporary excavations
combined with murals by the indigenous people reveal an array of styles and uses. Most of the
surviving masks are apparently burial masks. Often they are carved from some form of rock or
made form clay. Skull masks, some jade encrusted, have also been excavated. These are believed
to hold the spirits of gods or ancestors and when captured from an enemy take away power.
In contrast to the above the murals and painted vase of the Mayan era show colourful
head-dresses and mask used for a variety of occasions. Masks were not only used for
entertainment and religious purposes but also by warriors. The influx of the conquistadors
caused the erosion of the established order and the imposition of the catholic church. The
results of this, across the whole of Central and South America, was a synthesis of Pagan and
Christian celebrations. Despite the removal of the ruling elite the masking traditions
continued especially where associated with agriculture and fertility. (Much the same as in
The missionaries alarmed at the continuing rituals encouraged the local people to adapt their
festivals to Christian ones which fell close to the same time of year. For example in the Andes
Intirayami feel close to Carnival. The pre- Hispanic ceremonies for the dead in Central America
coincided with All Souls and All Saints. Just as in the Andes where ancient temples were built
upon with the new churches the traditions of masquerade were embodied with in the new
festivals. Interestingly this had already happened as Christianity spread throughout Europe.
Within the second layer of change there was already a similar layer of pre-Christian pagan
practice. The festivals that developed during these times have, in many cases, endured through
to the present day.
Guatemala and Mexico
The collectors of old masks from this area find that even masks from the last 30 years that
have been used in festivities fetch good prices. Masks from further, back depending upon
quality, can command even higher prices. If you have a contact in the area it does help. My
sister lives in the area and sometimes helps by giving me great masks. I anticipate paying but
is a brilliant sister. Two good galleries to contact are>>>>>>>>> and>>>>>>.
There are lots of good contemporary makers. I have bought several masks from the mask maker on
the market in Chitchecastenango. I have a story about mask makers in this area especially for
those visiting on a tight budget. When ever visiting an area of the world that is different to
your own it is useful to get as much local knowledge as possible. However sometimes local
knowledge is not enough for something new comes along......
I use this story in my mask making classes to allow people to experience cultural differences.
After a days outing with my sister, Sylvia, her daughter Antonia, my wife Dot and our two sons,
Sam and Adam, visiting various interesting places we stopped in Panahachel. It was early
evening and we were ready to relax before our evening meal, soft drinks and beer were on offer.
We were simply enjoying the evening air, the time of day and conversation. It had been a good
Suddenly a local man and his son approached use. He was dominant. "Senor do you want to buy
Having spent my allowance for the day, and having no interest whatsoever in the mask I said
The mask was a really low grade tourist mask painted blue and Yellow. It had a snake curling
around its face and two sheep or goats horns nailed to its head.
Then the negotiating started.
"No thank you!" I responded, politely but firmly.
After a time you do get tired of people selling things to us gringos.
He persisted. "Senor, you can have this mask for 30 quetzales."
"No! I responded I have spent my money for today."
The next response totally threw me.
He said "Senor you can have this mask for 25!"
Now this was really rare. He was dropping the price and I was not even bargaining. Something
was definitely wrong.
"No I don't want a mask." was my reply.
His response was, "Senor, you can have this mask for 20."
Now I really was flabbergasted. "No thank you I don't want a mask.
On this process went until we reached 10 Quetzales. At that point I decided that £3.00 in UK
pounds it meant no-thing.
I still have the mask and still tell this story, the difference is now I understand what was
going on. Would you like to know? The reason for my bargain was that it was the last sale of
the day. In the process of selling the most important sales are the first of the day because it
gives you luck for the day. An earlier start means a more profitable day. Then the next
important sale is the last one of the day as this gives the seller luck for the next time he
comes to market. When you consider that these people live from the proceeds of their labours
and the sales of their labours it is easy to understand.
All my masks have stories around them. Where I got them, why, what they were used for, what I
like about them etc. As I have
used many of my masks with children having stories helps to bring them alive. Funnily enough I
often find that my two crude horned mask from Guatemala fetch the most interest. Young children
enjoy their direct message. The only other mask that receives as much attention or respect
(particularly from teenage boys) is the Marka mask I have which only looks down. It is worn by
the man who carries out the circumcision of young initiates. It fair brings a tear to their
There are so many types of mask that it seems almost impossible to list each type. Many mask
are danced to day so new mask are always being produced. As with other areas masks are made
specially for the tourist. The mask maker in Chichecastenango is worth a visit if you are in
In Guatemala it is possible to discover conquistador masks that mock the invaders. They are
often associated with Pedro
Alvarado who with his soldiers conquered Guatemala. Also seen are devil like mask which have
snake symbols associated with healing in most cultures. The deer dance, a reflection of a
Spanish tradition, has masked dancers performing in long faced deer mask.
As in Mexico many of the festivals mirror the European church with local additions. For the
collector in both these areas it is possible still to buy good danced masks from source. This
is difficult to do with out local help. It is also possible to buy new masks form the carvers
which are the ones to be danced. Authenticity in these cases comes form the carver. Even
tourist masks can have a high standard of craftsmanship.
In Mexico the range of carnival and festival masks is vast. Some of the production is personal,
the dancer creates his own
mask. Some of the festivities include:-
The Dance of Moors and Christians
The Twelve Peers of France
Carnival before Lent
Animal dances in particular the Tigre dance which is a representation of the jaguar
The Festival of the Crazies ( la fiesta de los locos )
La danza de los vaqueros
Dances for patron saints e.g.. San Isidro Labrador
The Day of the Dead
To add to this wide range each area has its own interpretation of the costume, dance and mask.
For the collector this widens the range considerably.
If you are interested in this particular area may I recommend the following books
Mask arts of Mexico by Ruth Lechuga and Chloe Sayer Thames and Hudson ISBN 0 500 27797 4
Masks the Art of Expression Ed John Mack British Museum ISBN 0 7141 2530 x
© Ian Bracegirdle 2004 1 Elderberry Close East Morton BD20 5WA UK 01535 692207 http://mask-and-more-masks.com You may use this article freely on condition that you include this copyright line and URL and that people who subsequently use this article follow the same conditions. Thank you for accepting these conditions.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Teacher. Course Leader, Mask enthusiast and collector.