Behind the Scenes: Masks in the Non-Western World

The COVID 19 pandemic has introduced many challenges including mandatory mask-wearing. This got me to thinking about the concept of a mask. In western cultures, a mask is defined as a noun as something you wear but can also be used as a verb “to conceal”. But in non—Western cultures, their function is more than to simply cover and conceal but to celebrate long-standing rituals and traditions. 

The AD&AM at UC Santa Barbara houses a strong collection of masks from various regions of the world including Africa, Mexico, the Pacific Northwest as well as New Guinea.

Arriving in 2018 as part of the Puccinelli estate, the museum received a set of Huichol face masks which fascinated me due to their intricate beadwork. 

Mexican Huichol face mask(s), Beads on carved wood, ca. 1930s. Approximately 10” h. ea. Estate of Frances Garvin and Keith Julius Puccinelli.

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The Huichol are an indigenous people of Mexico still extant located in the Sierra Madre Occidental range in Nayarit, Jalisco and Zacatecas states.

Although the Huichol seek autonomy in their land, they are governed by both the Mexican government and one native to the Huichol. During the last forty years, the latter has established schools in the Huichol zone without much success; continued friction from both church and state toward Huichol traditions prevails.

Until recently, the Huichol did not have a written language and many of their religious symbols are based on the trinity of veneration of the deer, corn, and peyote. This symbolism appears everywhere in their culture including their colorful beaded masks and yarn paintings. This practice was a way of preserving the ceremonies, myths, and beliefs of the ancient Huichol religion where religion and art are intertwined and considered to be sacred. 

Huichol art is made by coating the bottom of a gourd or a figure made from wood which is then coated with a mixture of beeswax and tar. The artist then presses into place, one by one, hundreds of brightly-colored glass beads requiring a great deal of patience and concentration, uniquely characteristic of the Huichol people.

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Oceanic: New Guinea, Yam Mask, 10 x 4 1/2 x 4 1/4”. Woven reeds, plaited basketry, pigment. Gift of UCSB Art Affiliates

This yam mask comes from the Abelam culture, an agrarian society residing in the tropical rainforests of Papua, New Guinea. Composed of woven reeds and coated in pigments associated with death and vitality, masks like this would be displayed during ceremonial occasions in observation of the annual harvest. During these festivities men compete to determine who can grow the largest yam, indicating a successful crop return. The greatest yam of all receives this special mask type, which is created to honor the life-giving food staple and is not meant for human adornment. In Melanesia, yams are regarded as sacred—a living embodiment of the ancestors, that requires reverence and proper supplication. 

This ritual is still an active part of the Abelam culture.

African, Belgian Congo, Kuba Peoples, Mukyeem mask, ca. 1950s. Fiber, wood, metal, glass beads, cowry shells, and leopard skin. Margaret Mallory Collection of African Ethnological Material

Kuba art and architecture is characterized by a dense arrangement of multiple media and pattern, while many objects are created to represent leadership and prestige. 

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Although masks in this form frequently have been called mosh’ambooy, research indicates that it is probably of a type called mukyeem. The masks are characterized by a shape resembling an elongated elephant trunk that projects from the top of the head while many are detachable. The museum’s mask is constructed of layers of woven raffia palm fiber, decorated with white cowrie shells and red, white, black, and blue beads. 

African, Belgian Congo, Kuba Peoples, Mukyeem mask, ca. 1950s fiber, wood, metal, glass beads. Cowry shells and leopard skin. Margaret Mallory Collection of African Ethnological Material. 

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From Southern Nigeria, the Igbo Double Faced Maiden Spirit Mask has various uses, mainly in social satires, religious rituals, and secret society initiations. There are two main types of Maiden masks: semi-helmet with a carved superstructure and a smaller face mask with a cloth-covered wood superstructure.

The masks represent the Igbo ideal of female beauty: small, balanced features, elaborate hairstyles, and delicate tattoos. 

Worn each year for ‘The Fame of Maidens’ ceremony by men in tight-fitting colorful dress, the mask is intended to instruct young people in attitudes necessary for moral as well as physical beauty. This includes height and litheness, good posture, a straight nose, and a small mouth, as well as purity, obedience, good character, and generosity. 

The museum’s Igbo mask, illustrated here, is a half-helmet with crested superstructures of complex openwork coiffure comprised of three arching bands with a circular and cylindrical motif. The mask also exhibits common characteristics of a painted white face representing various spirits, a pierced and a diamond-shaped mouth beneath the sharp nose which is positioned between slit eyes; the face is decorated with linear and circular facial scarification. 

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Edward S. Curtis, b. United States, 1868 – 1954, Nootka, Queen Charlotte IS., Pacific NW Coast, Dancing Mask, Nootka, 1915. Photogravure. Margaret Mallory Collection and Dean’s Office Purchase Fund

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Nootka, Queen Charlotte IS., Pacific NW Coast, Wolf Head Maskca. 1950s. Wood, abalone, horsehair, and paint. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Dedola

Native American masks are created for many ritual ceremonies such as spiritual, healing, and initiation of a young man into a tribe. It is usually a male of high status who creates the mask in isolation and which is crafted to represent a characteristic of an important myth, symbol, or an animal. Once worn, the wearer is taken over by the spirit(s )represented by the mask.

In the Pacific Northwest, winter is a time of dance and performance while rights to these ritual dances have been passed down in families as treasured privileges. 

Among Northwest Coast peoples, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, and Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) represented here, themes are similar regionally such as reenactments of hero-ancestors and spirit beings from the past. The photogravure by Edward Curtis includes a representation of the moon which symbolizes transformation because it illuminates in the dark and controls the tides. 

The wolf mask represents the only land animal believed to be loyal and possess supernatural powers.

Although some of these masks may represent ideas and values not appreciated by English speaking cultures, the craftsmanship of the masks and their meaning cannot be overlooked. Enjoy!

-Susan Lucke, Collections Manager & Registrar 

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