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The Mask-Maker of Rabinal

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Artisans tend to be a secretive bunch. Their most prized asset is their technique, so they keep their work mostly (sometimes even their line of work) to themselves. Such is the case of Jesus Iboy, a 37-year old mask-maker from the town of Rabinal. Hidden in plain sight, he steadily bangs the tun, a wooden drum carved from a tree trunk, as he watches a play unfold. The actors dance their roles away while wearing the masks he’s crafted for them. “The most ancient masks are the ones that have been used the most,” he muses. “We don’t know how many people have worn them.” Another thing people don’t really know is who’s created the masks.

“In the area, we don’t know each other,” Mr. Iboy says of mask-makers. “Even in the town of Rabinal.” For a while, he had a friend who was also a mask-maker, but he didn’t really know it until his friend figured out that they were in the same line of work, and asked him about it. “I told him that I couldn’t really tell everyone what I do,” he laughs.

The tools of Jesus Iboy to make the masks in his workshop. Phoot: Santiago Billy/Comvite

With all the secrecy surrounding this particular endeavour, it’s only natural that his career as a masterful mask-maker began purely by accident. About ten years ago, his uncle asked him to procure a large piece of cedar wood which then would be used to make a set of masks. Mr. Iboy kept a piece of the wood, and he began working on his own mask design just to give it a shot. He eventually finished a mask depicting a bull, and left it lying around for months. “After a while, people started coming in and seeing the mask,” he recalls. “They’d tell me to keep doing stuff like that. Slowly after, I began getting into the art of woodcarving.”

Jesus Iboy, holds an unfinished deer mask for the dance “los animalitos” or “the little animals”. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

His mask making process takes between 15 and 20 days. He carves, paints and dries them all by himself. However, right before he begins working on a new piece, a small blessing ritual must take place. “If there is no ritual, I will not make them in time,” he explains. “After the ritual, it’s like getting permission to make them.”

Every mask that he makes is crafted as an exact replica of an older mask. He uses them as templates to get a feel for the size of the piece, and inspiration.

Jesus Iboy poses with an old deer costume. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

Mr. Iboy tries the masks on his own face to make sure that they are comfortable enough for the dancers. “The holes through which the dancers see are very important,” he remarks. “If they don’t give good vision, then the person dancing with the mask might fall.” So, he diligently carves the wood into perfection every time he makes a piece. Once he’s done, he sands and polishes the wood to prepare it for the painting process. Adding colour to a piece takes about four layers of paint in order to make it shiny and beautiful. After they’re dry, they’re ready to dance.

And so, when his creations take the stage, he plays his wooden drum for them. Hidden in plain sight, he steadily bangs away a beat for the dancers to sway to, paying close attention to his masks, being one of the only few who knows what his true role in the play is.

Jesus Iboy, holds an unfinished deer mask for the dance “los animalitos” or “the little animals” showing the interior. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

 

Detail of deer hoofs on an unfinished mask. Photo: Santiago Billy/Comvite

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