About Lowell Fiet Collection of Masks
More than 200 photographic images of the masks of Caribbean carnivals, fiestas, celebrations, and other religious and secular ritual performances comprise the Lowell Fiet Collection of Masks. Dr. Lowell Fiet is the photographer in all instances, and the photos show the mask as an artistic expression and cultural practice based on a process of transformation. This consists of the creative act of using everyday materials such as tree trunks, newspaper, cement bags, cardboard, etc. for papier mâché, dried coconut husks and palm fronds, calabash gourds, wire screen, body paint, make-up, and shoe polish in the creation of visually and metaphorically captivating aesthetic objects and bodies. The masks serve as a means of recuperating and reinventing ancestral memories and the ancestral heritages of present-day communities. New commercial masks made from synthetic materials such aS rubber and plastic are also included.
The arts of mask-making and mask-wearing arouse questions about identities, hidden or revealed, imagined or real, memories of dreams and projections of desires; questions that usually have multiple and complex, as opposed to simple and obvious, answers. Some of those questions might be: At any given moment, how old are we? Are we fifteen, twenty-four, forty-nine, sixty-five, one-hundred, two-thousand or twenty-thousand-years old? Are we male, female, Puerto Rican, Haitian, black, white, brown or in-between; African, European, Asian, Indigenous, American, straight, gay, bi- or trans, legal or illegal e/im/migrant? Do we inhabit the here and now, the realm of ancestors, or a residence in Brooklyn, the South Bronx, Mérida, or Cartagena de Indias? Do we share the generational memory of the hold of a slave ship or criminal transport vessel, the passage from India, China, Indonesia, or Syria, or a refugee camp, the inner city or the suburbs, childhood, or an imagined family of racial memory? Through masks we give life and presence to the rarely visible others who reside inside each of us.
Wearing a mask also means asking, what do I look like? A specific creature or character—a deer, an antelope, a bear, a raven, a wolf, a god, a hero, a spirit, a demon, an elephant, a monster, a wild woman, a foolish doctor, an arrogant politician, a maniacal street sweeper, a dragon? Or do I look like the imagination itself—forms, colours, features, perhaps mythical, but not necessarily a result of the imitation or literal representation of external perception? Of course, the mask is never just a mask: it forms part of myths, ideas, stories, and what Claude Lévi Strauss names “transformation sets” (The Way of the Masks). The mask can be a disguise, but it can also serve an artefact that reinvents rites of survival, myths of sacrifice and heroism, stories of origins, and the birth of literary art and generational history. To “dance” with masks, as Barbara Ehrenreich (Dancing in the Streets) so eloquently comments, constitutes a fundamental act of joy that confirms our humanity:
. . . banded together and enlarged through the artifice of masks and sticks, the group can feel—perhaps appear—to be as formidable as any nonhuman beast. When we speak of transcendent experience in terms of “feeling part of something larger than ourselves,” it may be this ancient many-headed pseudo creature that we unconsciously evoke.
The exploration of the art of the mask begins at this point because it teaches us that we all have the same age as the human race.
Mask-making as symbolic and metaphorical expression is among the oldest forms of human creativity. Through creative processes and efficacious and aesthetic functions in performance, masks capture the nature and force of the repression and, at times, the liberation instituted through cultures “in contact.” Masks provide the cartography of the depth of the stories, myths, rituals, ceremonies, visual and plastic arts, music, and dance as exterior projections of the religious and secular forms invented or renovated by oppressed populations and subjects. They help us resist and survive inside new spheres of the uncertainty occasioned by conquest, slavery, emancipation, imperial domination, dependence, global neo-colonialism, and the rise of new fundamentalisms. They offer multiple language and levels of expression.
The dramatic, musical, corporeal, and ritual expressions throughout the Americas, both aboriginal and immigrant, especially African, whether celebratory or of mourning, religious or secular, have incorporated masked characters of two or more identities. They conceal as well as reveal codes and meanings that change and contrast in relation to the identities and understandings of the spectators who attend, experience, and/or participate in them. Whereas the “outsider” or non-initiated receives one message, the “insider” or initiated has access to multiple levels of interpretation. Whether it is a face mask, a full-head mask or cabezudo, a helmet mask, a headdress, a mask mounted on the wearer’s shoulders or one worn and operated by several performers; whether it is figurative or abstract, zoomorphic or anthropomorphic or a hybrid of both, virtually all “spirit” masks become Janus-like with two or more faces and permit further transformations of number, gender, species, and form.
The Collection includes photographs of the Fiestas of Santiago Apóstol in Loíza and of Ponce’s Carnival in Puerto Rico, the masks of the “Shakespeare mas” players of Carriacou, and the carnivals of Port of Spain, Trinidad, San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic, Jacmel, Haiti and Roseau, Dominica. Jamaican “Jonkonnu” masks and the masks of the Corpus Christi celebrations in La Villa de los Santos, Panamá also form part of the collection.
All photos are of contemporary masks. The great majority of photos were shot with a Sony DSLR alpha a100 or, since 2014, the Sony DSLR alpha a7II.
In addition to the Caribbean festival masks, the Collection also documents the work produced in the educational mask workshops the photographer has offered throughout the Caribbean region during the last 15 years. The purpose of the workshops is the development of skills in creative intelligence and an aesthetic of cultural recovery, resistance, and innovation in an era of commercial invasion that tends to undermine local cultural traditions and manual arts. The masks created in the workshops utilize recyclable materials such as common cardboard, plastic gallon water containers, and tree bark and plant vines.
The Lowell Fiet Collection of Masks permits the exploration of the mask as a foundational element of Caribbean Festival Arts. The Caribbean is one of the most productive areas of the world in terms of the construction and design of artisan-made ritual and celebration masks. However, this is usually seen island by island and only rarely taken together as a comparative display of the creative popular identity of the entire region. To study masks provides a way to examine the attitudes, values, beliefs, and expectations of Caribbean communities. These photos demonstrate just how brilliant, creative, and intertwined the popular arts become inside Caribbean societies with different languages, populations, customs, and forms of government.
The Collection presents photos of distinctive Caribbean masks made with diverse kinds of materials: wood, papier mâché, coconut husks and palm fronds, wire screen, cardboard, face paint and make-up, and acrylic and oil paints. These are transformed into aesthetic objects that visually astound the spectator at the same time they permit the real or imagined face behind the empty eyes of mask to assume new dimensions and powers.
The masks photographed for this collection represent acts of “cultural performance” in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, The Dominican Republic, Haiti, Dominica, Trinidad, Panamá, and Carriacou.
Fiet, Lowell. An Archipelago of Caribbean Masks. (Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers; San
Juan, Santo Domingo, La Habana: Editores Isla Negra. 2019).
--------. Caballeros, vejigantes, locas y viejos: Santiago Apóstol y los performeros afro-
puertorriqueños (San Juan: Terranova Editores, 2007).
--------. “Masked Enigmas: The Vejigante of the Fiestas of Santiago Apóstol in Loíza,
Puerto Rico,” ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America, Fiestas! Beyond Folklore, (Spring 2014) Harvard University: 30-33 with four original photos.
--------. "Masks in a Multi-aesthetic Educational Context," Caribbean Quarterly, 60, 3
(September 2014): 58-72 + photos.
--------. “The Vejigante is Painted / Green, Yellow and Red. . .”, chapter in Festive Devils of the Americas, eds. Cozart Riggio, et al. London: Seagull Press, 2015: 168-188; includes 15 original photos by the author.