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Styles and Functions of Masks from Guatemala, Mexico,

Puerto Rico, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia


The following information refers mainly to the collection of masks found at the Martin Gallery of Tribal arts. The gallery collection has a large selection of masks from Mexico, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.  Some of this information was obtained from the carvers, dancers, or cultural groups by the gallery owner, Jerry Martin, while, he was in the countries collecting art.



Oceania refers to a large area of the Pacific Ocean and includes Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia.  Altogether there are literally thousands of islands. The majority of Martin Gallery’s ethnographic or tribal arts collection comes from Melanesia and was field collected between 1965 and 1987.  Melanesia means the black islands as the indigenous people are dark skinned. Melanesia includes New Guinea which is the second largest island in the world. It is believed that New Guinea Island was first populated over 40,000 years ago. The other major islands of Melanesia include the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu (formally called the New Hebrides) New Caledonia and the Fiji Islands





   Ebo Yoruba  Mask,            Kaveke Mask,           Mamatua Mask,             Conquistador Mask,               Devil Mask

   Nigeria,                   Papuan Gulf, PNG,       New Ireland, PNG           Guatemala,                            Guerrero, Mexico

   #1983.01.004 1           # 1987.01.155          #1984.01.005                      #1994.01.003                            #2009.01.038              




Masks are worn for a variety of reasons in many different regions and cultures of the world.  In some cultures masks function as a way people can theatrically represent characters important in their history, religious doctrine or their mythology.  Before literacy was widespread these dances were often performed to teach people about their past history, important heroes or villains and how to live a good and moral life.  In other cultures mask are worn so people can physically or mentally be transformed into another identity or spirit. This physical transformation concept, was, and still is, often used to bring the power of the spirit into the wearers for specific purposes. The spirit’s power can be used to heal or harm people, bring a fertile harvest, help create a prosperous future, plus an unlimited number of other wants and desires. 

In Mexico, Guatemala and parts of Southeast Asia, masks are mostly used for theatrical purposes.  In Mexico there are hundreds of different dances performed during religious festivals or special occasions to bring people together and create a festive mood.  Many stories represented by the dance are based on their cultural creation stories or brought from Spain during the time of the conquistadors.  A number of dances are believed to have been performed before the arrival of the Spanish.



Guatemalan Masks

The majority of used and traditional masks from Guatemala are obtained from “Morerias”, which are the shops that rent the masks and costumes to the groups who perform the dances. The dancers are normally men from the village where the dance is performed. They are not professional dancers or part of an organized group that entertains on a regular basis. Often the owners of the “moreria” help them in selecting the masks and costumes needed and help with choreographing their dance. Most “morerias” will not sell masks as carvers are rare and good masks are hard to replace. Their masks are often fairly old and have been repainted or repaired many times over the years.





Dance of the Conquistadors

One of the most popular dances in Guatemala is the “Baile conquista” or, Dance of the Conquest, which tells the story of the fight between the Spaniards and the Moors in Spain, but in this case, the moor have been transposed into the local indigenous population.  This dance was obviously introduced by the Spanish and then “corrupted” by the local Guatemalan Mayan population. The “Baile Conquista” is also danced in Mexico and even in Loisa, Puerto Rico.  The masks of Tecom Umam, King of the Quiches, and other Mayan characters plus the masks of, Pedro Alvarado, the conqueror of Guatemala, and his conquistadors are among the most traditional and collectable of Guatemalan masks.





Tecom Umam Mask,

Guatemala, #1995.01.007



Dance of the Deer




    Photo in process

Another popular Guatemalan dance is the “Baile de Venado” or Dance of the Deer. This dance had its roots in pre-conquest Mayan culture and has been handed down for hundreds of generations.  It tells the story of an old man who goes out to hunt deer which is the mythological symbol of the Mayan people and in ancient times they were known as, Mr. Deer, owner of the hill. The deer was an example of humility among wild forest animals and was liked and respected by man. Before going on the hunt the old man performs the ritual acts to placate Mr. Deer for allowing him to kill one of his sons. Finally, with the help of his dogs he kills a deer and the other animals of the forest help him bring the deer back to his wife. This dance manifests humanity's relationship with animals and nature.  The masks and costumes associated with this dance usually include an old man, old woman, hunters, two deer, dogs, and a monkey, lion, and tiger or jaguar. The list and number of minor character and animals can change from group to group as there is no unchangeably prescribed way of performing these dances. 


The above describes only two of the many popular dances performed in Guatemala.


Mexican Masks




In Guerrero, Mexico, one of the most popular dances is the “Danza de los Tlacololeros”.  The masks associated with this dance are 14 men often with black face masks, a dog and a tiger (perhaps an ocelot). In the Nahuatl language, tlacololeros are slash and burn native farmers who mostly plant corn plus some beans, chilies, tomatoes and a few other crops. The tiger causes problems for the farmers so they hunt down the tiger which is finally killed by their dog.  It is believed that this dance is pre-conquest in age and has been handed down for hundreds of generations.

Other very popular Mexican traditional dances include: Dance of the Moors, which is basically the same as the, Dance of the Conquest, performed in Guatemala The popular, “Danza de los Diablos  or Dance of the Devils”, had its origins in colonial times, when the missionaries to the indigenous populations wanted to teach them the basics of the Christian religion and its concepts of right and wrong. En esta danza existen dos personajes principales: la muerte y lucífer. In this dance the main characters are death and the devil. There are usually twelve or more masked devils and a number of clown-like characters.








Devil Mask, Guerrero, Mexico #2009.01.037

The Dance of the Seven Vices or, “Danza de los Siete Vicios”, Esta danza enseña gráficamente a distinguir entre el bien y el mal, supuestamente trabados en eterna lucha. distinguishes between good and evil, supposedly locked in eternal struggle. Participants in this dance include a priest, a player, a student, a teenager, love and death. Los danzantes establecen entre sí, diálogos con relatos especiales y bailan por parejas el tema musical que se les destina. The masks are often grotesque and very complex portraying devils, or skulls surrounded by snakes, lizards and other poisonous creatures symbolizing evil. The above describes only a few of the many popular dances and masks found in Mexico.





Papua New Guinea Masks

Most New Guinea masks have the function of spirit transformation allowing a spirit to take over the body of the wearer. Throughout most of New Guinea the concepts of ancestor worship and animism is still very prevalent.  The spirit of an ancestor is called into a carving or the body of a man so it can help solve problems or help maintain a harmony between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Animism is the concept where everything has a spirit, trees, rocks animals, water, the wind etc. Sometimes these spirits need to be called down to the realm of the living. I was told one time during a research trip to New Guinea that “the spirits need a place to settle and we need to know where they are. You can’t just talk to empty air.”  Masks are often used during initiation ceremonies and other rituals where the living want their ancestors to be present for guidance or to keep them up on current events.


Abelam Masks




The Abelam people live in the Wosera area near the mouth of the Sepik River. (please refer to the map found in the section "The arts of Oceania") They are well known for their beautiful and elaborate masks made from woven rattan and painted with natural and now commercial colors. The Babakumbu or helmet masks are worn by men during initiation, healing and harvest ceremonies. A long skirt of pandanus leaves hang from the mask to hide the body of the wearer.  The Abelam are also well known for their yam masks called Babamini .  Yams are especially important to the people both as a food and because they are associated with the ancestors.  The men grow a special variety of yam that can reach up to 10 to 12 feet in length. These yams are decorated with masks and displayed during harvest ceremonies. The longer the yam the more prestige the man and his ancestors receive



Papuan Gulf Masks




Keeveke Mask, Papuan

Gulf, PNG #1987.01.155



 Some of the largest woven masks come from the southwestern area of PNG know as the Papuan Gulf Region. The Kanipu masks have rounded heads covered with basketry or bark cloth (tapa) and long open jaws. They appeared in the central delta areas to enforce a taboo on coconuts for use in ceremonies. Some were worn by young boys during initiations. 


Another special mask is the Keveke, which is very tall and oval. They occur from Urama Island east into the Elema area. They may have been derived from sacred bull-roarers or from “gope” boards which are carved from wood. The function of Keveke masks varies from area to area as some represented ancestor spirits while others are warriors.


 Kanipu Mask, Papuan Gulf, PNG, #1987.01.004







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