“Masks in Haitian Art”

By Candice Russell

As a category in Haitian art collecting, masks are wonderfully evocative distillations of a living creature’s essence. While I own masks from Mexico made from coconut shells and carved wood, my favorite masks are from Haiti in a variety of materials. These three-dimensional Haitian sculptures deserve a special place in my home.

Whether human or animal is the inspiration, Haitian masks successfully convey personality and character through line, form and color. On the artist’s part, the process of creation involves study and thought.

What are the must-have considerations in creating, for example, “Cat with Open Mouth” in papier-mache? Measuring 17 inches by 11 1/2 inches by 4 inches, this black and white-striped head by an unknown artist is a respectful exaggeration in size of a typical domestic feline. Its green eyes are impossibly slanted for dramatic emphasis.

But it is the long pink tongue and jagged teeth of the cat that give it a fearsome appearance. Red ears and bloodshot eyes indicate the animal’s devilish intentions, as well as its genetic tie to much larger jungle cats like panthers and jaguars. All the same, there is a mischievous, even playful side to this mask that makes it collectible.

Also in papier-mache, “L’Ange Exterminateur” or “Exterminating Angel” made in 1995, is titled and initialed by the artist Lionel Simonis. As one of the top tier exponents of this medium, he makes the mask not just for display like “Cat With Open Mouth,” but also for wearing (it’s certainly lightweight enough). It is the size of a human face with holes for the wearer’s own eyes. This mask is a pretty woman with large red hoop earrings and a colorful headdress worthy of a Taino or an Arawak princess, in reference to the island’s first inhabitants. With her high cheekbones and coquettish eyelashes, she is a seductive reveler ready to let loose at the Carnaval.

The painter Roi David Annisey turned from canvas to coconut shell in creating “Green Face Mask,” an acrylic on coconut shell, measuring 13 inches by 10 inches. Shades of the verdant color enliven the head of what could be a Vodou (voodoo) spirit. The creature’s hair is bush after bush, punctuated by yellow, laverder and red leaves. Its nose is a cracked tree trunk, out of which emerge five red flames suggesting a passionate, even fiery disposition. A few tiny lavender teeth are seen in the open mouth, across which is an orange-red fern.

Is the mask Annisey’s version of Grand Bois? This Vodou spirit is known as a leaf doctor, concocting remedies from nature found in the forest. The mask is signed with the artist’s full name in its bushy hair.

In the realm of Haitian metal art, “Mask: Male with Flying Hair” by an unknown artist, is a standout. Measuring 31 inches high by 5 inches wide, it is painted in shades of green, blue, orange, and gold. The nose, nearly a foot long, has a raised surface due to numerous emphatic circles nearly punched through from the other side.

But it’s the hair — straight up and wavy, as if the figure were caught by surprise while underwater — that gives this mask a sense of amusement. Did he see a whale while fishing? Is he in the midst of a Vodou possession, letting a commanding spirit have its way with him? Masks can take different forms and transmit different personalities, but they all have a story to tell.

If you wonder how to display Haitian masks, I run to two schools of thought. Interior designers recommend groupings of like things, even masks of disparate materials. And groupings do create a graphic punch on a wall, becoming a room’s focal point. But don’t forget the comfort and joy of putting a cherished mask above your bedroom door as a guardian spirit.