right in the eyes

Primitive masks from Nepal

  • East Mezzanine
  • Exhibition ticket 8,50 € full price et 6 € reduced price

Tuesday 9th November 2010 - Sunday 9th January 2011

CURATORS : Stéphane Breton and Marc Petit

The exhibition

anthropomorphic mask © musée du quai Branly photo Thomas Duval

This winter, the musée du quai Branly will showcase an exceptional set of 22 primitive masks from Nepal donated by the collector, Marc Petit, in 2003.


The Nepalese hills are populated by tribal societies which were neither Buddhist nor Hindu at the outset. The best known are the Magars, the Gurungs, the Tamangs, the Rais and the Lumbus. These masks, some of which were probably linked to the ongoing practice of shamanism, have been used for centuries. They take the form of ancestral faces, mythical figures, demons and buffoons and express the imprint of shamanism and ancestral beliefs on these tribal societies' everyday life and rituals.

anthropomorphic mask © musée du quai Branly photo Thomas Duval

But these masks have not been thoroughly researched and are not yet widely known. They started to emerge on the global scene about thirty years ago and have seduced a small number of enthusiasts by their brutal strangeness. One of them was Marc Petit, who started collecting them and became one of the first to understand that their brutality was the result of a very clever art form. He donated some exceptional pieces to the musée du quai Branly.

Around a mask

Male character dance mask © musée du quai Branly photo Thomas Duval


What is this? – A potato hoping for the knife, a face thrashed by the blows of a drunkard, a bit of spit in the palm of the hand, a fragment of a face, a striking glance. It seems to be some sort of bad encounter. We are seen by someone we don’t know and who appears to poke fun at us. I want to tell you who this is.

We hardly know anything about this exceptional mask and masks like it from the Nepalese foothills of the Himalayas, probably from the Magar or Gurung region. All we know is that it was cherished for a long time by people who took great care of it, stroking it with their greasy hands, generation after generation, wrapping it in rags and putting it above the fire to let it dry and scream once more. It has enveloped in all the filth and the smoke in the world. It is soaked in the sweat of all who have worn it. Very few things are as radiant under that much filth.

One thing is for certain: it’s not a face, it’s a shapeless face. It tells us that on this earth, humans have shapeless faces. They should be proud of it, it makes us human. A shapeless face has no fixed contours, it is both soft and hard, but not in the same places. This says a lot about the deepest recesses of our souls. The mask is particularly interested in the soul, which can probably be explained by the influence of Tibetan or Nepalese shamanism. These practices are sometimes blended with Tantric Buddhism and has left a few leaf masks in Siberia that are as fragile as this mask is strong. Masks silence the person who wears them and expel all kinds of illnesses from the soul and the flesh.

Little is known of this mask, except that is very old and that it does not smile. Both go together. Its very old age tells us that its strange grace was cherished for its qualities of strength and persistence. Our perception is clouded by ignorance and memories - ignorance of what we do not yet know, and the memories of what we have already seen.

The ethnologists failed to see and take this mask. It is steeped in the unknown. It does not possess "primitive art's" enjoyable and sometimes comforting plasticity, nor does it contain the enlightened conformism of formal art.

Stéphane Breton