Image of Mask
Image of Mask

place and nature

Cultural and spiritual associations with land and the environment are often key elements in masking. Animism is the belief in spirits that occupy and empower the natural world. In this context, humans are believed to be linked closely to these spirits of animals and plants, rivers and geological formations, and natural phenomena like rain.

Masked characters can represent spirits of the natural environment. It is not surprising that masks will incorporate features from the animals and plants around the community.

When masks represent ancestors or their messages, they may also take on a form that captures the essence of the natural world.

Image of Mask

All sorts of natural materials are used in making masks, including wood, metals, grasses and other fibers, bark, textiles, animal skins and horns, and feathers. The use of particular elements can have symbolic meaning. In some cases, human behavior is likened to that seen in nature, such as the behavior of animals.

Image of Mask
     Burkina Faso Leaves Dance 2007 – photograph by Doris Neilson

Animal features, or modified versions of them, have become integrated into the form of many masks. The masks of Burkina Faso in west Africa are a veritable menagerie of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish. In representing elements of animals, the masked character may be manifesting some of the perceived characters of the beast as well. This can reflect different cultural perceptions of that animal, or of its place in a story or message. For example, African masked dancers will often characterize the monkey as mischievous and a thief, a generally a badly behaved character (not surprising when we remember that monkeys steal the villagers’ crops). In contrast, in the epic Hindu story, the Ramayana, the monkey-like vanaras are courageous and inquisitive characters who serve the hero in his fight against evil. In dramatic and danced performances of the story, monkey masks are worn and reflect this positive representation.

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     Burkina Faso Big Dance 2007–photograph by Doris Neilson

Dangerous animals often feature in masks, aligning the power of the animal with the power and authority of the mask, or to depict victory over a strong but dangerous force. In Mexico, we see the jaguar – or tiger (tigre) as it is often called –depicted in masks that are involved in a number of dances. The jaguar is a large powerful animal, but in masks, it can be more. Tiger masks often have large reflective eyes, which can be linked to the invisible pre-Columbian god Tezcatlipoca, associated with an obsidian mirror. He could influence human fortunes and his tona (guardian) was the jaguar. Here the natural world and the supernatural world are merged in the masked form of the animal.

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     Gule Wamkulu baboon masked dancer Makawi 2007; photograph by Gary Morgan

Commonly, masks depicting powerful entities like witches or spirits will have animal, or other nature-inspired, features. Sharp teeth, long horns and other beastly traits reveal the potential of the character to do harm, even if the character is not fundamentally evil.


If you saw a mask depicting a monkey, would your immediate reaction be that this was a positive or negative character?

How many masks can you see on display that have some animal characteristics?

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