From the northwest Pacific coast up to the far north, masks serve as a dream medium that aids the shaman and acts as a catalyst. They appear in the festive atmosphere of the potlatch or the more game-like context of the mitaartut to play down the shaman’s intimidating authority and the dramatic aura of sacred intervention. In both cases they are worn with costume disguises and it is through this parody that the mask can convey a teaching, which, in the far north, often turns out to be mythical. The functions of parody and mime given to masks in the masquerades and carnivals of Central and Latin America carry through into the Bolivian diablada or the Tzotzil masks of the Chiapas. This conception is part of a syncretic approach, where European traditions and the influence of Indian masked festivals combine to cyclically reinterpret historical events or significant acts of social life.
Ammassalik, Greenland / 1930-1934 / Wood, fur / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1934.175.2753
Most of the masks adopted generic forms. The stripes evoke tattoos, a practice that was already in use in the fifteenth century. However some of them, like this one, had more individualised expressions and could have been portraits. The ornamentation also reinforced the effect of the dances. Seal skin patches or arctic duck feathers could be applied to the face.
Greenland, Ammassalik / 1930-1934 / Skin / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1934.175.2821
This type of mask was made out of plucked seal skin decorated with stitched leather strips. Sick children were given these sealskin hoods to wear as protection, sometimes endowed with small amulets sewn near the eye and mouth openings.
Makah, Washington State, United States of America / Polychrome wood / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1885.78.310
From Alaska to the state of Washington, the masks of the Northwest Coast are part of a cultural continuum which the Tlingits and the Makah share with their Haida, Kwatkiult, and Tsimshian neighbours: the potlatch. These lavish ceremonies, organised to celebrate major events and display the clan’s power and wealth, gave rise to the production of a number of prestige articles. The masks worn during the potlatch dramas represented the spirits whom the ancestors would meet and served as a reminder of the rights and prerogatives the supernatural beings had granted them or of the lessons learned during mythical encounters with mammals, birds or fish. These zoomorphic or anthropomorphic beings, in the image of the Tlingit human face or the Thunderbird mask used by the Makah of Neah Bay, also illustrated the legends of the emblematic figures of the clan’s history.
State of Guerrero, Mexico / Lacquered wood, tooth, bristles, skin Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 71.1973.47.11
Animal-face masks are frequently found in the carnival traditions of Central America, derived from Pre-Columbian models and borrowed from European examples. The tiger’s procession is particularly reminiscent of the figure of the jaguar, a fertility symbol in Pre-Columbian imagination. These masks were used as early as 1631 and are brought out for Tecuan dances. The expiatory slaying of the tiger at the end of the dance expresses the victory of the world over the untamed nature of the forest world. In the state of Guerrero, these masks are made according to the rayado technique that superimposes two layers of different-coloured lacquer, one of which is partly removed to form bird and rabbit motifs in black highlights.
La Paz, Bolivia / Plaster / Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, Paris / Inv. 70.2017.55.31
This mask, which is too small to be worn, is the exact replica of the diablada masks worn by miners, notably to pay tribute to the Virgin of Socavon who reigns over the bowels of the earth. These diablada figures are also used in La Paz. Sold in January at the Alacitas fair, they guarantee protection of the home for the coming year.