Mask-making: Exploring The Meaning And Significance Of Mask-making Across Cultures

Mask-making: Exploring The Meaning And Significance Of Mask-making Across Cultures

One of the students attending our mask-making workshop in 2022.

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Mask, Carnival Jacmel, Haiti.

History of Masks

In this blog, we dive into the rich mask-making tradition in Haiti, and how this activity helps vulnerable children in Jacmel, where CPI operates. Discover the cultural significance and hidden meanings behind masks in this in-depth exploration of their history, tradition and evolution. Explore the many roles mask making have played throughout time.

Haiti’s Rich Mask-Making Tradition

Mask making is a tradition that has been passed down through generations in many cultures around the world. Not only is it a fun and creative activity for children, but it also has the potential to provide valuable skills and opportunities for their future. ChildsPlay International (CPI) recently implemented a mask-making program in Haiti, which teaches children the local tradition of mask making. It gives them a sense of cultural significance and pride.

The art of mask making can be a healthy and beneficial activity for vulnerable children.

The Power of Masks

Mask-making is a tradition that has been passed down through generations in many cultures around the world. Not only is it a fun and creative activity for children, and the community, but it also has the potential to provide valuable skills and opportunities for their future.

ChildsPlay International recently implemented a new mask-making program in Haiti, which teaches children how to make traditional masks. This gives the children a sense of cultural significance and pride. Discover how mask-making can be a healthy and beneficial activity for vulnerable children.

A Mask Makes us Visible and Invisible

We associate masks with celebration, as if putting on a different face lets us step outside our everyday selves.  We can whoop, dance, and gesticulate with a sense of freedom, without fearing the consequences of transgressing social norms.  With a mask, we are not who we usually are. But we are even more visible. Masks invite people to stare at us, and appreciate just how far outside the ordinary we are (at least for the moment).  It’s thrilling, ego-boosting. Mostly, however, the make-believe and the memory of it are just plain fun. 

The History of Masks

Historians recognize that masked celebrations provide a safety valve for when emotions would otherwise remain pent-up.  In societies stratified by race, class, and gender, or where conformity is required to stave off entropy, masks allow people to let off steam (or enough, anyway) so that they’ll resume their usual faces – and sense of responsibility – once the celebration ceases. 

Girl in Haiti attending a CPI mask making workshop.

Mademoiselle Cristelle Jeudy has been chosen to continue her training as a mask-maker. In summer of 2022, ChildsPlay International held a six-week workshop for 200 children in Haiti.

Recently, there has been renewed attention to mask-making around the world. Perhaps because it sends money everywhere, Western Union examined ten mask-making traditions – from Venetian Carnival to Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican celebrations.  In every case, it reported, masks were transformative, allowing people to view themselves differently and to be seen as different. Of course, the two are related, since first we must believe that we are not quite ourselves in order to convince others to take us for monsters, fairies, ghosts . . . or whomever/whatever we are supposed to be. 

Masks in Ritual and Spiritual Practices

Yet what was really fascinating in Stefan Zechner’s discussion on Western Union’s website, was that while all the mask-making traditions involved both hiding one identity and projecting another, they differed radically in their ultimate objectives. Thus, in Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) masks represent skulls.  They honor the dead, and acknowledge death as a part of life.  The Japanese Shimokita Tengu Matsuri mask portrays the long red nose of a bird’s beak surrounded by humanoid facial features, following a bird-like creature anthropomorphized in Japanese myth. 

Does this sound strange? Not really, if you start from the premise that mask-making is about breaching the limits of imaginative possibilities. Mask-making is Disney before Disney, with most traditions having survived for centuries.  As Western Union notes concerning the Venetian Carnival, it originated in the 13th century, with some theories suggesting that masks “were donned in rebellion to the rigid society of the times.”  Apparently, even in a modern democracy like Italy, the need for “rebellion” still has at least a counter-cultural appeal.  People are happy to adapt a mask-making tradition as their culture evolves.

The Evolution of Masks

CPI’s experience in Haiti illustrates this type of evolution. As Dr. Jean-Elie Gilles observed in an interview with us (Gilles is Haiti’s representative in Jacmel, part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network), Haiti’s mask-making tradition originated in a slave society, where wearing a mask made you unidentifiable.  It enacted a kind of ritual freedom even if, in fact, you were not free. A mask was empowering, imparting a sense of hope (however dim). It was an 18th century version of how late Medieval Venetians cocked a snoot at the doges. Of course, the Haitians finally threw off their French colonizers – perhaps with some latent impetus from masks!  

The Role of Masks in Identity and Self-Expression

Now, mask-wearing is more about participating in Carnival.  As Dr. Gilles told us, Carnival is another version of freedom, a way to indulge one’s libido, let go of frustration and stress, and flaunt taboos that are otherwise inexpressible.  Carnival offers catharsis – a release from everyday grinding reality. While you are no longer hiding from a colonial power, you’re escaping poverty, social unrest, and their effects on how you feel about yourself, your friends, and anyone else you might name.  Psychologically, Carnival is a crucial outlet; writ large, it helps stabilize a fragile society. 

ChildsPlay attended the colorful carnival in Haiti

While carnival is a beautiful celebration of life and culture, it also holds deep historical meaning.

Haitians, like members of other societies, recognize that masked public performance – however archaic it may seem – still serves a role in civic life.  As a way of letting go, sanctioned by tradition, it’s a powerful form of soft power. As Dr. Gilles puts it: “Making masks in Haiti is not a simple, innocent thing. It bears the weight of historical and psychological and human baggage. Masks allow people to feel in control of their fears and part of something much bigger. That is one meaning of the Carnival parade.”  When each person gets a hold of their fears, accompanied by others with the same objective, the shared purpose is tantamount to shared support.  That is what civic life is ultimately for.

In the U.S., there is nothing like Carnival on a national scale (there are, of course, outcroppings in cities like New Orleans and Mobile).  So, here is a question: what if once a year we all put on make-up like that worn at the Boston Tea Party?  Would we be better adjusted? Less polarized? Who knows.  But it might be fun. It would connect us to our history which, for many, is fast receding.

Boy showing the mask he created during a CPI mask making workshop in Haiti

ChildsPlay International recently completed an immensely successful mask-making program for 200 children in Haiti.

Conclusion: The Power of Masks

Part of CPI’s objective in Haiti is to help preserve the country’s cultural traditions.  It’s a way of ensuring that Haiti has a place in the international cultural conversation – around art and, in particular, mask-making.  Most importantly, it’s a way of ensuring that the next generation of mask-makers (including girls) can contribute to this effort.  Mask-making around the world is passed down from experienced practitioners to newcomers.  We want to help this process remain alive and well in Haiti, no matter the difficult economic and social conditions.  So far, the children’s exuberance suggests how conscious they are of what they are learning (Art! Tradition! A marketable skill!).  It’s very encouraging.   

“Making masks in Haiti is not a simple, innocent thing. It bears the weight of historical and psychological and human baggage. Masks allow people to feel in control of their fears and part of something much bigger. That is one meaning of the Carnival parade.”

Dr. Jean-Elie Gilles

Read more about our mask making program in Living City Magazine and how we help vulnerable kids.

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