Collections •  America  

In Central and South America the history of the mask begins a long time before the arrival of the conquistadors. Masks were worn in agricultural rites and rituals expressing the belonging of somebody to a certain social group or used to adorn the deceased. Masks also represented the gods. They made it possible for them to visually show their ability to transform themselves (for example, to turn themselves into animals); today shamans still make use of this particularity of the mask.
In Central America, and especially in Mexico, the mask may personify bad, disrespectful beings living on the edge of society. It is important to know that in Mexico the demonic world counts a particularly large number of characters. Different codes and legends from the Christian occident have mingled with the symbolism of pre-hispanic times. The character of Death, for example, occurs very often and is demystified through its presence in popular festivals. Animal masks or hybrid masks mostly represent monsters or demons and appear in dances taking place on the occasion of big Christian festivities.

As far as the use of masks in South America is concerned, there are two clearly distinctive areas corresponding each to a specific natural environment. In the urbanised regions which are relatively westernised – or at least christianised – the use of masks is very similar to that of Central America. However, the great importance of carnival in this region has to be pointed out. The second area is that of Amazonia. In this region masks are worn during rituals whose main objective is to exert influence on the environment which is hostile and, at the same time, generates life. Ancestral beliefs (ghosts, demons, divinities) still play an essential role despite the presence of the preachers; for this reason masks are still necessary in initiation and healing rituals and extremely important in several other rituals.

In North America, too, the different cultural areas have their specific masks. The agricultural rites and those connected with hunting are strongly influenced by the climate of the region concerned. They play a special role in the “liturgy” of the North American Indians. The masks are integrated in a surprising manner in totemism and shamanism. In the first case the mask is considered as a social marker and is a means to strengthen the social cohesion between the individuals. In the second case the mask is a tool for communicating with the invisible world, the ancestors and the spirits of nature.