The story behind Bolivia’s Carnival masks


Behind the elaborate and colorful masks that thousands of dancers wear for different dances during Bolivia’s Carnival season are the artisans, who begin working on their creations months in advance of the celebration.

An exhibit in La Paz pays tribute to one of these “folk artists.”

The idea behind the exposition featuring the work of La Paz artist Alejandro Paz, who has been pursuing his career for more than 40 years, is to “reassess” the work of the “mask-makers” in Bolivia who use plaster of Paris to produce their iconic creations.

Reinaldo Chavez, the cultural adviser for the Carnival dance troupes in La Paz, told EFE about the value of the exhibit.

Via about 30 masks for typical Carnival dances such as the “diablada, llamerada and morenada,” or for iconic Carnival characters such as Pepino - all of which are on display at the capital’s Local Customs Museum - organizers are intending to make the public more aware of the little-known world of mask-making, which requires a great deal of creativity and talent.

“We have to appreciate the Bolivian artists who provide the spirit for these festivities with their colors and their talent,” Chavez said.

Each plaster of Paris mask takes more than a month to make, with the entire process being done by hand from making the molds to creating the specific features of different characters in the country’s typical dances on each of the masks.

After making each basic mask, the artists polish it and add coats of paint to create textures and ensure that it best resembles the character it is designed to represent, Chavez said.

The key is to take into account the tiniest details and also to use other materials like sequins, mirrors, pearls and even synthetic hair to make the masks more lifelike.

Among the masks on display is one for the “llamerada” dance used by men and with the features of somebody who is whistling, an allusion to the shepherds of the Bolivian altiplano.

“The llamas are herded along by the sound of their whistling, and that’s why the mask has that expression,” Chavez said.

Another mask is the one of the devil used in the “diablada” dance, and this one is very colorful, with horns, snakes, two bulging eyes and big teeth.

In addition, there are about 10 masks of Pepino - the iconic character of Bolivia’s Carnival - in different colors with assorted features showing the great creativity of the artisans who produced them.

The masks, Chavez said, are “works of art” and are everywhere at the Carnival celebrations in La Paz and in Oruro, which UNESCO has declared part of humanity’s Intangible World Heritage.

“It’s work that is slow and little valued,” he said.

Chavez said that many do not know the extent of the labor behind each mask, despite the fact that they are important parts of the Carnival dance costumes and represent the satire and exaggeration that is part and parcel of the celebrations.

Nowadays, he said, many masks are no longer made of plaster of Paris, due to the weight of that substance, but rather are fashioned of fiberglass and resin.

The mask-making technique has been handed down from generation to generation by the artisans, but now there are few remaining, Chavez said, and the big concern is over who will continue the time-honored practice.