Masking and de-masking on the Island of the Moon

“…Ibiza, that strange and colourful island
where people retreat to take off their masks,
or don new ones…”

“Nina”, Nina van Pallandt, 1973

IMG_8764Image: Ibiza….a dream? Tony Keeler, 1973

1. Masking

During the 1960´s they began to come – the hippies, the foreigners, descending on a pine-clad island in the Mediterranean which, until that point, had an isolated, almost-medieval culture. Here, on red earth, the hippies roamed barefoot to the sounds of goat bells, and cicadas – sensing through the preserved, peasant traditions and folklore of Eivissa a strange, ancient magic.

The foreigners used paint and canvas, word, dance and rhythm to give voice to this magic… they gathered often, but especially on  full moon nights, to celebrate a wild, dark, and addictive force, known by those who built the Carthaginian cult here, millenia ago, as the moon goddess, Tanit. And legend has it that in those days, nothing more was required for these gatherings than a simple, white-washed country finca… it was the souls in attendance who harnessed their own colours and imaginations – creating unscripted, moonlight-drenched happenings on a tiny forested landmass.

Over decades, the lure of this strange supernatural force, activated by the simplicity of a rhythmic beat, magnetized more and more followers. Thousands heeded its call. The white-washed country fincas grew into Pacha, Priviledge and Amnesia – the superclubs – temples of colour, light, sound and spectacle… where all-night ceremonies took place, hosting thousands of attendees at a time, all seeking the ultimate  earthly experience of sensory stimulation, togetherness, communitas.

A new cult grew on an island which had, until then, been known as Eivissa… it swelled to such mighty proportions, as an independent entity on this foreign soil, that it invented a new, recognisable name for its international tribe – Ibiza. But as soon as this new name was conceived, a separation began. The people who flocked to the modern temples of Ibiza didn´t know the soil of Eivissa – nor did they speak its language. Revellers danced beneath a full moon, absorbing the magical forces of an ancient Phoenician goddess who had for centuries brought fertility to the island´s fields, valleys and orchards, but left without caring to visit them – or the springs and wells that had always fed them. The visitors absorbed this magic for themselves, and then left.

Over the decades, a cultural masking had taken place – over the fragile, soft and quiet culture of Eivissa, something hard-edged, loud and attention-seeking had been placed – a thing called Ibiza. A dazzling mask, a seductive mask, a mask promising infinite things… which could not all be delivered without the causing of some kind of harm.

47-Three-plank-masks-BoniNwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

2. De-Masking 

In village communities of Burkina Faso, West Africa, artists are commissioned by village elders to create the tall, striking, wooden Bwa plank masks, covered with an intricate language of black and white symbols. The symbolism on the masks is a coded map – a guide to all that is sacred to that particular community… the masks are worn at ritual dances, corresponding with specific phases of the lunar calendar and marking important rites of passage for members of the community.

In 2017, on the Spanish island of Ibiza, summer is just beginning, and with it, a season of not completely dissimilar mass-dances in those giant superclub temples. One of them, Woomoonshapes its identity around ideas of ritual, and the cycles of the moon, more than any other. Here, a mask-maker has just been commissioned to make a set of masks – their only guidance being an image – of two traditional Bwa plank masks from Burkina Faso.

3Work in progress: Bwa plank masks, traditional shape designs

The mask-maker sets to work on their commission. They are not given any obligation to acknowledge the traditional meaning of these masks, whose style and aesthetic they are about to adopt. Whether they do or they do not, will not affect the price they will be paid, or the credit they will be given.

But maybe no one is more aware than a mask-maker of the difference between the external and the internal – the outward displayed image, and the internal meaning of something. They are two separate worlds, polar opposites, and to blur them would be… the greatest possible lie that a mask-maker could ever make. So the mask-maker tries, in their way, learn the language of the Bwa plank masks. Perhaps it is an embarrassingly superficial understanding… but to the Ibizan mask-maker, the clumsy attempt is important – no, it´s essential.

IMG_8273Work in progress: mask designs

The mask-maker of Ibiza, just as those of Burkina Faso, gains the best possible cultural understanding of the symbols at their disposal. They then combine it with their imagination, and create their own unique design – a story through symbols.

IMG_7626Work in progress: painting the masks

The story of the masks goes something like this. The crescent moon at the top, just as in the African tradition, is the ´moon of masks´- the moon that shines during the season in which the dance is performed. The checkerboard pattern represents the separation of knowledge and ignorance, initiated and uninitiated. In the Burkina Faso communities, the elders sit on dark hides whilst the fresher, younger initiates sit on lighter hides… in this case, the checkerboard pattern represents the two different cultures of Ibiza and Eivissa, which sit beside, but at odds with each other.

IMG_7652Completed masks

The white zig-zags surrounding the central square panel represent two things in the traditional Bwa plank mask language – first, the serpent that is sacred to Burkina Faso, and secondly, the path of improper behaviour in village society. In these Ibizan masks, the zig-zags symbolise the same things: the destructive, ecologically damaging behaviour of people driven to Ibiza for purely hedonistic reasons, and also – the relatively new  snake infestation that has taken place on the island in recent years – an island which, previously, the Phoenician settlers had said to be ‘blessed by the Gods’ because no harmful creatures inhabited it. The new arrival of a poisonous reptile to a once blessed, and harm-free land, is seen by some as a warning.

Woomoon: image by Valya Karchevskaya @Phantomography

The central symbol on each of the masks fuses traditional Bwa plank mask meaning with the visual language created by Violeta GaleraWoomoon´s lead artist. In her language, the motif represents a breast – symbolising creativity and fertility. In the Bwa plank mask language, a circular ring with a dot in the centre represents ‘sacred wells which never run dry’. In this case, the symbol stands for the wells of the island – ancient, sacred sites of ceremony in honour of Tanit, goddess of fertility – still celebrated year on year by the folk dance traditions of Eivissa, but largely overlooked by the tourist visitors of Ibiza.

IMG_7740Woomoon, image: 

Beneath the cylindrical mouth of each mask are three, barely visible black triangles. In the Bwa plank mask tradition these represent three tears for the death of an elder. On these masks, they are three tears for the death of Ibiza´s river, the Riu de Santa Eularia – a once abundant river which traversed the island from its source in the North West to its mouth in the East – a river whose gradual demise over the last four decades took place in parallel with the expansion of tourism, and the increasing depletion of a limited water supply.

IMG_8763Woomoon at Amnezia (Woomoon Facebook page)

In the villages of Burkina Faso, the masks are given initiatory names by their creators, based on the unique combination of motifs used. In public performances, however, a different name is given to the masks, chosen by their new owner. In a similar fashion, the mask-maker of Ibiza names each of their masks after two magical wells in the north of the island – Balàfia and Atzaro – but from the day of the first performance onwards, these names will not be known, acknowledged or used.

IMG_7754Woomoon: image by Valya Karchevskaya @Phantomography

The mask-maker lets the season of summer dances pass by, in those giant superclub temples of Ibiza, and observes an endless stream of images celebrating two, nameless masks. As the summer recedes, and the temples of Ibiza shut their doors, those who once flocked here go elsewhere. The season is over.

Now, the mask-maker can tell their story. The story behind a mask – because in the end, all masks come off. The story behind an image – because with time, all images lose their appeal. The story of two masks whose true names are Balàfia and Atzaro, named after two wells on an island blessed by a goddess of hedonism, and fertility… an island whose true name is Eivissa.