les vacances de Noël en Himalaya

du dimanche 26 décembre 2010 au dimanche 2 janvier 2011

spectacles, ateliers, visites, installations, cinéma, rencontres et conférences : découvrez le programme des activités de Noël en Himalaya au musée...

right in the eyes

Primitive masks from Nepal

  • East Mezzanine
  • exhibition ticket 8,50 € full tariff et 6 € reduced tariff


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 collector Marc Petit in 2003.


In the hills of Nepal live 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 probably linked to shamanism, which still exists today, had been used for centuries. Ancestor faces, mythical figures, demons and buffoons, these masks represent the trace left by shamanism and ancestral beliefs in the everyday life and rituals of these tribal societies.

anthropomorphic mask © musée du quai Branly photo Thomas Duval

But these masks have not been thoroughly researched and are not yet widely known. They have started to emerge on the global scene about thirty years ago and have struck 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 spit in the palm of the hand, a fragment of face, a stunning glance. This thing looks like a bad encounter. We are seen by someone we don’t know and who’s poking fun at us. I want to tell you who this is.

We hardly know anything of this exceptional mask and its peers from the Nepalese foothills of the Himalayas, probably from a 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 taken 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 mug. It tells us that on this earth, humans have mugs. They should be proud of it, it makes us human. A mug has no shape, 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 probably should be explained in light of Tibetan or Nepalese shamanism, that is sometimes blended with Tantric Buddhism and has left a few leaf masks in Siberia, as fragile as this mask is unkillable. Masks, who silence the face of he who wears it, 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 had worth, the worth of strength and persistence. Ignorance and memory lurk over the sense of sight of eyes tired from habit. Ignorance of what is yet to know, memory of what has already been seen.

Unseen and not taken by ethnologists, this mask is steeped in the unknown; it does not have the plastic and sometimes comforting pleasantness of "primitive art" nor does it contain the enlightened conformism of shapes.

Stéphane Breton