Text Mask-Making Materials
Mask makers have shown great resourcefulness in selecting and combining available materials. Among the substances used are woods, metals, shells, fibres, ivory, clay, horn, stone, feathers, leather, furs, paper, cloth, and cornhusks. Surface treatments have ranged from rugged simplicity to intricate carving and from polished woods and mosaics to gaudy adornments.
The most remarkable Aztec masks, and perhaps the most familiar, are made of mosaic and human skulls. Turquoise is the most common material, although other stones, such as jade, obsidian, quarts and malachite, are also used.
In Bali, Indonesia, a tree that produces a knot is considered pregnant. A priest asks the spirit of the tree for permission to remove the knot before it is used to make a mask. Certain trees contain powerful spirits, such as this one in Signapadu, which is associated with the deaths of two priests from mysterious causes within a week after they removed one of the knots.
Masks of bark, fibre, and other plant materials, such gourds, coconuts, and grasses, are used commonly for the creation of masks in Oceania/South Pacific and the Americas. Many times plant materials are used in agricultural harvest rituals or simply for decorative purposes.
The final phase in making a mask was applying colour and traditional decorative motifs. Originally, simple natural colourings, e.g., earth elements or vegetable dyes from the jungle, would be used until foreign traders introduced metal-based pigments. As a general rule, white was used as a base colour, while black was used to emphasize features. Red was always used to denote demonic character, whereas harvest festival masks could easily be distinguished by the variety of colours used to decorate the carving. The masks would be stored safely from the sun and rain, but would on occasion be repainted over the years.
Traditionally, an expert mask maker in Sarawak, Malaysia, made several trips to the jungle before selecting a tree to be used for carving masks. Once the tree was felled, the word carver would peal off the bark and prepare the wood in blocks and store them out of the sun in a shed so the wood would not crack.
Some mask makers did not plan their designs in advance. They worked out the forms as they carved; therefore, carvers had to be innovative in their thinking.