Image of Mask
Image of Mask

Masks for sale

Masks are attractive collectibles and works of art. Many mask makers around the world are turning their skills in making masks to crafting items for sale to travelers, collectors and stores. Is this a bad thing?

Traditional crafts are under pressure as people everywhere are forced to generate cash to survive. Masks can have strong spiritual significance, but making masks for traditional use rarely generates a significant income for the artisan. Selling masks to tourists and collectors can generate more income and can support the craft skills that otherwise are under threat of being lost.

Image of Mask
     Wooden masks by unknown artisan for sale in Mexico 2009;
     photograph by Alejandro Linares Garcia from Wikimedia Commons

There can be controversy when traditional practices become more commercialized. There is an ongoing debate within the Iroquois community as to the propriety of false face masks being made as tourist items for sale. The masks for sale are not spiritual items nor have they been danced, but there are those who regard this as demeaning the sanctity of the true religious masks. In some cases, tourist masks – like other tourist artifacts – can be cheap and shoddy versions of the traditional works from which they derive. They can become parodies of the works that have inspired them.

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     Commercial African Masks for Sale
     in the tourist oriented market, Tanzania,
     2010; from Wikimedia Commons

However, generating income from selling masks and other traditional art can support artists who otherwise would have to turn their time to other activities for revenue. These artists can then mentor and train the next generation of craftsmen and women, who will also be able to earn some income from their skills. Tourist pieces are not necessarily artistically inferior to the traditional works. The contemporary masks of North West Coast Native American artists are one example of a thriving creative art form. These masks can command high prices. They may be made for sale but incorporate strong traditional elements in their design. This is not uncommon as well when tourists, or researchers, commission masks – the purchaser wants a mask that captures the traditional designs but the product has no spiritual significance. In some cases, tourist or commercial works incorporate more diverse artistic styles, which can in turn inform the works used in traditional ways. Mask-making and other traditional art is always evolving. Tourism and commercial art become variables influencing the course of that evolution.

Image of Mask
     Bead mask and necklaces for sale in Mexico 2009;
     photograph by Alejandro Linares Garcia from Wikimedia Commons

The economic, social and cultural impacts of commerce, tourism and even research are never simple or clear cut.

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