A: The masks depict important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions and are used in Carnival celebrations in the town of Oruro. Carnival occurs every year in late February or early March. I had hoped to visit again this year, but political instability in Bolivia made a trip too risky.
Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances. The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532. “The Morenada” music and dance style from the Bolivian Andes was possibly inspired by the suffering of African slaves brought to work in the silver mines of Potosi. The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins. Lucifer was disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols aor totemic animals that became nd mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest). Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.
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A: Here it is.
My long-standing fascination with traditional masks took a leap forward in the spring of 2017 when I visited the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore in La Paz, Bolivia. One particular exhibition on view, with more than fifty festival masks, was completely spell-binding.
The masks were old and had been crafted in Oruro, a former tin-mining center about 140 miles south of La Paz on the cold Altiplano (elevation 12,000’). Depicting important figures from Bolivian folklore traditions, the masks were created for use in Carnival celebrations that happen each year in late February or early March.
Carnival in Oruro revolves around three great dances. The dance of “The Incas” records the conquest and death of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor when the Spanish arrived in 1532. “The Morenada” dance was once assumed to represent black slaves who worked in the mines, but the truth is more complicated (and uncertain) since only mitayo Indians were permitted to do this work. The dance of “The Diablada” depicts Saint Michael fighting against Lucifer and the seven deadly sins. The latter were originally disguised in seven different masks derived from medieval Christian symbols and mostly devoid of pre-Columbian elements (except for totemic animals that became attached to Christianity after the Conquest). Typically, in these dances the cock represents Pride, the dog Envy, the pig Greed, the female devil Lust, etc.
The exhibition in La Paz was stunning and dramatic. Each mask was meticulously installed against a dark black wall and strategically spotlighted so that it became alive. The whole effect was uncanny. The masks looked like 3D versions of my “Black Paintings,” a pastel paintings series I have been creating for ten years. This experience was a gift… I could hardly believe my good fortune!
Knowing I was looking at the birth of a new painting series – I said as much to my companions as I remained behind while they explored other parts of the museum – I spent considerable time composing photographs. Consequently, I have enough reference material to create new pastel paintings in the studio for several years. The series, entitled “Bolivianos,” is arguably my strongest and most striking work to date.
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* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.
It takes courage to face the unfamiliar, to espouse the different; courage to fight one’s own prejudices only less than those of others. Was it not a little child who first dared call the emperor naked? It took great fortitude for Kepler to adhere to his new notion of infinity (as the second focus of a parabola), for, as he said, “The idea seems absurd, but I can find no flaw in it”; just as it did for Galileo to murmur among his inquisitors, “Yet the world does move.” Most of us will never achieve great imaginative insights; we might at least attempt to be tolerant of those offered by others.
The Biological Basis of Imagination by R.W. Gerard in The Creative Process edited by Brewster Ghiselin
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