The masked dancer. Masks of Peru
Miguel Rubio Zapata Collection


Miguel Rubio Zapata

Since time immemorial, masks tell and continue to tell stories, among us. Wearing a mask makes the dancer an officiant of a liturgy, with the power to have the advantage of observing without being observed. The spectator directs his gaze towards the eyes of the mask; but the dancer looks at him, in turn, with his own eyes, like someone peering through a window. The gaze, then, becomes essential to the interaction between dancer and spectator. That is why the master craftsmen of masks know that life is concentrated in the eyes. However, the masking involves not only the face but also the whole body, which transforms itself with the costume and becomes the skin of the character. Also involved are accessories such as scarves, wigs, hats, canes… That other skin, the mask, summons and confirms the appearance of a new body willing to reveal stories.

The masked dancer is the main animator of the context of the celebration. Throughout the ages, he appears linked to his community, as part of a conception of life articulated in relation to the cycles of the earth and its calendar. In the beginning, dance, theatre and singing were constitutive factors of the same event.

The  dancing almost always has to do with a faith and a promise to fulfil, so he spares no effort or money to concretize his participation a reality. He pays for it by investing in his costume and mask as well as in the organizing of the party (food, band of musicians, temple arrangements, and others). This attitude is related to that of the community, also moved by faith and an ancestral dialogue with nature and tutelary deities, as evidenced in the feast of the Virgen de la Candelaria in Puno, which begins with a fire ritual as an element. The diverse festive contexts of the Andean tradition offer us an appreciable field of information that is concentrated in the body of the masked dancer, where the ancestral memory is joined with the present. It would suffice to refer to the complexity of signs that the masks of the Diablada puneña, adorned by snakes, toads, and fireflies, that keep amazing similarity with the designs of the Sechín, Chavín or Tiahuanaco cultures and take us back to Pre-Hispanic rituals.

The first days of the year in Mito, Mantaro valley, the huacones stand as the highest authority in the village; they are the spirit of the tutelary deities of the mountain fused with the condor: man – sacred bird. This feature is evident in the wood-carved masks whose prominent nose resembles the condor, as are the movements of the dancing arms, flapping, or glued to the waist, as if returning from a flight close to the gods of the world above. They say in Mito that upright people, who met secretly in the outskirts and entered the village with whip in hand and unrecognisable voice, always represented Huacones. During those days, it was necessary to submit to the summary judgement of the new authority and those who were not willing to could only disappear during that time, because the new mayors would undertake the search, house by house, for those who were at fault with the community.

In Túcume, Lambayeque, where the Moche culture flourished, is the Valley of the Pyramids. Its inhabitants say that, in the past, in the highest part of one of the pyramids – known as Cerro Purgatorio (Purgatory Hill) – there was an immense bonfire  that was stoked by the devil. From there, priests disguised as devils would come down to frighten and evangelize the population. This story is told by the diablicos of Túcume, with their big masks, when they dance for the Virgin every February.

The chucchus or malaria dancers arrive in Paucartambo every 15 July. Their yellow masks give signs of their origin, showing wounds and insect bites on their faces, some are one-eyed or swollen by malaria and come to the party to ask the Virgen del Carmen to cure them. On the way, they suffer attacks of tertian fever, it is at this moment that female nurses and male nurses intervene, also masked, carrying medical kits and huge hypodermics. There begins an endless slide because the remedy seems to be worse than the disease. Behind, a character with death mask and scythe in hand, accompanies the troupe.

The c’hunchus have on their mask little pearls that hang from the nose, which they call “the distemper”, and would be proof that when the c’hunchu came out of the jungle and arrived in Paucartambo the cold weather affected them. This mask has an air of sadness because the C’hunchus long for the jungle, their place of origin. In addition, because they remember the attack they made against the Virgin – every year they make a pilgrimage to ask her forgiveness and stay by her side – as their eyes look up in her direction.

The masks of the doctorcitos, in Cuzco, have thick eyebrows, wide moustaches, crowded sideburns and large eyes to represent the tinterillos, judges, lawyers, and personalities of the judiciary. They go neatly dressed in black, men wear a frock coat and a top hat; women skirts, suit-like coats and caps. They carry a whip or cane and hold a book called “caracho” or, in some cases, old scrolls under their arms in a critical allusion to the formalities and paperwork involved in judicial proceedings. In the context of this dance, a parody of judgment is performed where the doctorcito judges a humble peasant and beats him with an immense book entitled “El peso de la ley” (the weight of the law).

The masks of the saqras, in Paucartambo represent playful devils. The characters are built as an anthropomorphic hybrid, embodying a duality: man-feline or bird of prey. They are similar to the representations of deities found in various iconographies of the civilisations of ancient Peru. The saqras are prepared on the outskirts of the village, in the rocky area of the Qenco Mayu River, where it is believed that sirens sing on the riverbank and where the devil and evil spirits dwell. When the devils are ready, they cross the bridge that it is said they themselves helped build, and enter the town square.

The ukukus are masked pilgrims who go every year on a mass pilgrimage to the Apu Sinakara. Beloved children of the Apu, orderlies and officiants of the feast, in a context full of sacrifice and faith, they are part of a celebration of high symbolic value. They wear a woven mask (huacollo) and a wig (humacara) made of alpaca or llama fiber; their fleece is the only protection for the intense cold. They wear a zurriago or chicote of raw leather, as a sign of authority, to maintain order. Related to the Hanan Pacha, or world above, they are the only ones authorised to enter ceremonially the snowy peak. Chakri Wayra is the dance that, when given in such a steep place –at more than 5,000 meters high- is designed to be able to move forward and get less tired. To accompany the dance, the ukukus are accompanied by a cowbell and carry a small empty jar that, when blown across, imitates the soft hooting of the wind.

The Yine (people) formerly known as Piros are an Amazonian people settled in the lower Urubamba. In this area lives the gayo, a character who wear an enormous clay mask that covers his entire head. It represents a man with a large nose, aggressive devouring teeth and a body covered with dried banana leaves. They say he shows up to scare kids and lazy adults.

In Peru, the mask has a native iconography dating back more than 10,000 years. Cave evidence has been found in Toquepala, where images of masked dancers in hunting rituals can be seen. It is clear that we can find at different moments of our history, even from the most remote, many forms of masking.

The masks are there ready to reveal unsuspected worlds to us.

Miguel Rubio Zapata

(Lima, 1951)

Has selected more than 150 masks from his varied collection for this exhibition. Curious pieces such as those made by altarpiece maker Mr. Joaquín López Antay, Amazonian masks of the Yine people – made of clay and animal teeth – or of the Bora people, made of bark cloth (llanchama). Most of his masks have been used in dances and acquired from the dancer himself. The first mask that captivated him was that of a huatrila. He acquired it at a newspaper stand in Tarma 50 years ago, and he has continued to increase his collection ever since. Miguel Rubio is a playwright, researcher of Latin American theatre, director and founder of cultural group Yuyachkani. He has been awarded the Premio Nacional de Cultura 2019 (the National Culture Award 2019) in the category of “Trajectory”.


From Wednesday 17 March to 15 August 2021


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