Jim Pieper, Guatemala’s Masks and Drama.

Jim Pieper. Guatemala’s Masks and Drama. Torrance, Calif: Pieper and Associates, 2006. pp284. $65.00 hard cover, $45.00 paper.

Mary Mesteller
Indiana University

Guatemala’s Masks and Drama by Jim Pieper aims to give an analysis of masks as an object as well as to discuss their role in Guatemalan culture, particularly in public dance performances, rituals, and festivals. Another function is to aid mask collectors in both acquisition and evaluation. Arranged topically, Pieper first discusses the history of Guatemala and then the history of masking in general. From there, he describes different aspects of masks as objects, and closes the book with a series of chapters discussing various uses of masks within Guatemalan folk culture. Addressing multiple audiences, the book is also multi-purpose and could be a relevant piece of introductory literature in a variety of fields.

Pieper begins by introducing Guatemala’s history and present day culture. He emphasizes the syncretism that has taken place in Guatemala since the European conquest, paying special attention to the religious syncretism between Catholicism and Mayan traditions. Immediately following Chapter 1, which pertains to Guatemala’s culture in general, he goes on to discuss the global history of mask making in Chapter 2. He draws on archaeological research and connects modern-day mask use to possible uses in the past. Overall, the topics explored in Chapters 1 and 2 give a general overview of both Guatemalan and masking history.

The next series of chapters discuss the mask as an object. Attention is paid to materials used in mask making, crafting techniques, and analysis of use-wear and repair. Much of this information is directed at collectors. He discusses evaluating the monetary value of masks based on patinas, repairs, style, and age. Pieper also provides tips on obtaining quality masks.

After describing masks as objects, Pieper devotes a series of chapters to masking in relation to Guatemalan culture as a whole. He discusses the significance of morerias (shops devoted primarily to renting out masks and costumes), when certain costumes are typically worn and by whom, and the text and context of many dances and dramas. He uses case studies in this set of chapters to illustrate variation within all aspects of masking from moreria business styles to rituals and dance performances. These chapters pull from many points and themes in previous chapters, such as syncretism between Mayan and Catholic traditions, symbolism within the masks, and significance of materials used for particular masks.

Pieper primarily uses data from his own personal experiences and research in his book. Through this, he demonstrates expertise in a wide variety of areas pertaining to Guatemalan masking. He also provides information from the perspective of both a researcher in Guatemalan folk performance, ritual, and costuming, as well as mask collector concerned about the monetary worth of masks based primarily on condition, age, and rarity. While he does not cite many sources within the body of his text, his reference lists includes many books and articles exploring the topics of syncretism, masking, Guatemalan folk performance, and Guatemalan folk belief. Pieper demonstrates a wide range of expertise on the topic of masking and drama in Guatemala from the perspective of a researcher, while also making it clear that he is a savvy mask collector. Unfortunately, Pieper does not speak Spanish and all interviews have been translated by his daughter. One can question if information has been added or omitted through the process of third party translation.

Pieper inserts many pictures from his personal collection as well as from other sources. These photos are extremely useful in understanding the concepts being discussed in the book. In the chapter on manufacture, photos explicitly show mask variation due to different techniques and materials and allow the reader to visualize how masks were crafted by showing mask makers at work. Different use-wears and repairs are also demonstrated well through the photos. Overall, the photos illustrate the variation of mask forms very well: an entire page is devoted to showing different ways mask makers represent monkeys. The same can be said about Christians and Moors, among other characters. Pieper does not simply show a pristine, prototype for each mask he describes in text, but a wide a range of variation in terms of style, use-ware, repair, and age. He also features many photos of the masks in use during festivals, rituals, and dramas which aids in contextualizing the masks within Guatemalan society.

Guatemala’s Masks and Drama addresses every stated objective. The organization into chapters makes the book approachable and multi-purpose. By reading the book cover to cover, one gets a well-rounded, introductory view of masking in Guatemala. That being said, it is not imperative that each chapter be read in succession. Different chapters are directed at different audiences and serve different purposes. For example, the chapter on mask collecting is of more use to the collector than the ethnographer. Pieper also continues to define key foreign words throughout the book, which allows readers to read chapters individually without feeling lost.

While I do believe that Guatemala’s Masks and Drama has a place in folklore literature, there are many sections that are more aimed at tourists and the mask collectors. Folklorists who study tourism of collecting might find it relevant to their research. Chapter 5, “Acquiring and Collecting a Mask,” does not describe means of obtaining masks as data for a study on material culture, but emphasizes monetary values of masks, based on rarity, style, age, and use-wear, and buying tips. Chapter 7, “The Dance/Drama and Observation,” is more directed towards the tourist as opposed to the ethnographer. It alludes to the concept of cultural relativism by encouraging patience if the performance doesn’t start exactly the scheduled time and by reminding observers that they are guests in Guatemalan culture and should refrain from judgment if a practice does not coincide with their belief system. While the information pertaining to finding festivals in Guatemala is useful to ethnographers, it does not appear that they are the intended audience. The photographs of masks could be extremely helpful in analyzing masks as pieces of material culture for they show a wide range of diversity through time and space and are often accompanied with information about its year and region of origin. Furthermore, the transcripts of drama scripts could be useful in text analysis that could supplement ethnographic research.

In conclusion, I recommend Guatemala’s Masks and Drama to anyone wanting a survey of Guatemalan masks and drama through time and space. It provides useful information for tourists, researchers, and mask collectors and is organized in a manner that makes it easy for the reader to decipher what information will be useful and what will not. While the photographs and transcriptions could supplement data found in ethnographic and material culture research, the text is presented at an introductory level and provides an understanding of Guatemala’s colonial history and the syncretic nature of the culture today without going into the detail that would be necessary to have in a large-scale research endeavor. Overall, the book is approachable, accomplishes all stated objectives, is aesthetically pleasing due to the multitude of photos used to accompany the text, and provides an interesting survey of how masking and drama is intertwined with Guatemalan society and culture.


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