From the Greek theatre to the Italian Renaissance, from traditional African societies to rural Europe, masks have always been present in different societies, assuming very different plastic forms and serving multiple social functions.
During this Carnival, Cruzes Canhoto gallery aims to explore a part of the complex universe of masks, showing tribal masks mostly from Africa in dialogue with Portuguese masks from Trás-os-Montes.
If it is true that these are two diametrically opposed contexts, since in one case we are in the domain of the so-called African tribal art and in the other in the sphere of the customs of European rural societies, it is also true that it is possible to find continuities between them – in both cases masks are part of ritual celebrations where the social order is temporarily suspended and where communication with supernatural forces is especially activated. In fact, despite the phenomena of retraditionalization and commodification that surrounds masks and their social uses, the use of these artifacts remains linked to initiation rituals, marked by dance, music, food and drink, and where there is room for eccentricity and the transgression of norms and behaviours. These are moments of “authorized licentiousness” or “legal anarchy,” that link the use of the masks to contemporary Carnival celebrations. As the anthropologist Benjamim Pereira points out, the ritualized denunciation of deviations from established norms plays a cathartic function that contributes to instill a more acute spirit of social reality in societies, allowing the cohesion of communities.
The Portuguese masks presented in this exhibition are all from Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro. Even though the precise origin of the use of these masks at certain times of the year is unknown, its connection with Winter rituals associated with the end of an agricultural cycle and the beginning of another, arising with Spring, is obvious. According to some researchers, this kind of masks, present in several European rural areas, come from practices inherited from the old agrarian cults, related to the fertility of the land and the change of the harvests.
The moments of worship are, however, also moments of connection between the world of the living and the world of their ancestors, where there is a predisposition for the appearance of demons, ghosts and the souls of the dead. Therefore, some say, the masks from Trás-os-Montes represent the devil and the dead ancestors. This is quite evident in elements of their construction: in the teeth, in the horns or in the use of the red color.
Although today the use of these masks has lost its ritualistic character and has become a cultural performance, some practices of the old rituals seem to remain: the begging and the food offerings, the playful character of the celebrations or the spirit of spree and debauchery, especially in the behaviour of the masqueraders, who run through the streets screaming and rattling at the single girls.