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Rainforest Masks of Costa Rica


For the twelfth year in a row, the exhibit of hand-carved masks created by the Native Americans of Costa Rica return to Selby Gardens, running through April 22, 2016. The masks are created by 17 artists, including one woman, and are available for purchase.

Boruca is a village with a current population of 1,500-2,000 people in an indigenous reservation in southwestern Costa Rica. Some 60% of the residents make their living as artisans of these masks and other textiles.

The masks originated during the Spanish Conquest. Villagers learned the Spanish were afraid of the devil, so in an attempt to protect their village, they wore “diablo” (devil) masks. They failed to chase the Spanish away, but were able to save their village. Each year since, a festival is held to commemorate this with a festival called Juego de los Diabolitos. The main element of this festival is a bull mask and costume representing Spain doing battle with “diablo” masked participants. They are defeated, but their spirits return to then defeat the bull, and his costume is tossed onto a fire, vanquishing the enemy.

BorucanMaskPainting_480x360)The masks today are made from balsa wood and typically painted, but they were originally carved from cedar and left unpainted. The balsa wood used today come from farmed trees, and each tree provides enough wood for 30-40 masks. The masks are carved with simple tools and other than small, fragile parts, are made from a single piece of wood. Originally painted with natural pigments, they are painted today with acrylics.

There are two other types of masks: The “ecologico” represents a stern-faced shaman surrounded by the flora and fauna found in the wilderness around Baruca he is tasked to protect. The other is a “combinado”, which combines both the “diablo” and the “ecologico”.

Each mask takes about a week to carve and 3-4 days to paint. While often the same artist carves and paints a mask, one artist might specialize at carving while another paints it.

Mask-carving was a rapidly fading tradition 30 years ago when Ismael Gonzalez Rojas, Sr. chose a select group of young artists to teach the art. Artists maintain this tradition and are constantly introducing new artists to the craft, which provides both a source of income for the village as well as maintaining tribal heritage and tradition.

The masks traditionally represent what Borucans see around them, from animals and birds to plants and flowers. The jaguar symbolizes protection, and with 875 species of birds in Costa Rica, a wide variety are found on the masks.

Other examples of paintings by the artists can be found at Selby Gardens on the colorful animal statues found in the Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden.

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