SchoolArts Room

Vivid Vejigante: Creating Caribbean Carnival Masks

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Jun 11, 2017

Vejigantes are clown-like characters in Hispanic Caribbean Carnival celebrations that trace their roots back to the days of Spanish colonialism and African slavery. Today these characters lead parades wearing ornate masks of all colors and costumes with bat-like wings while carrying giant painted balloons made from cow bladders. The term vejigante derives from the word vejiga (bladder) and gigante (giant). 

by Rachel Wintemberg, SchoolArts Magazine, Summer 2017
Imagine that you lived a long time ago, when slavery was still legal throughout the Spanish empire. You are an African mask maker, a skilled artist and well-respected member of your community. One day you are kidnapped and brought to Puerto Rico as a slave. While in Puerto Rico you encounter native Puerto Ricans (Taíno people) and Spanish traditions, like Carnival.
Ambar Rodriguez
Slaves were not allowed to openly practice many of their traditional arts and customs but the African influence on Vejigante masks is unmistakable. The masks are linked to many festivals that continue today, especially in Puerto Rico, in the cities of Loíza and Ponce and in the Dominican Republic in the city of Punta Cana.

When different cultures come together, new ideas blossom. Slavery and Spanish colonialism may be part of the Caribbean's past, but the tradition of the Vejigante lives on. These mask making skills have been handed down from generation to generation, dating back to colonial times when African people were first brought to Puerto Rico in chains in the hold of slave ships.

Jeyddy Ruiz

I introduced my students to the contemporary Puerto Rican mask makers Raul Ayala and Roberto Zach Castro. Raul Ayala practices the ancient craft of constructing Vejigante masks from coconut husks. His masks are influenced by his multicultural past and family traditions. Roberto Zach Castro started out as a graffiti artist before learning to create beautiful unique Vejigante masks out of recycled materials.  
I asked my students to compare these artists’ work to Yoruban masks from Africa. The class noticed that both types of masks had distinct horns and were inspired by the faces of animals but, unlike many African masks, Caribbean masks often use vibrant colors and patterns.
Edward Lopez
Mask Making
To create a Vejigante mask your students will need 9” x 12” white paper and tag board, clear and masking tape, scissors, tin foil, newspaper, plaster craft bandages, acrylic modeling paste, acrylic paint, and acrylic gloss medium (such as Mod Podge). Have students first construct practice designs out of white paper to experiment with shapes and forms.
Edward Lopez
Procedures for Students

Fold the white paper in half and cut a curved line starting and ending at the fold. To make the eyes, open up the resulting shape and fold the edges to the middle and cut on the folds. Cut a slit at the top and bottom of the mask on the fold and overlap and tape the slits to create a three dimensional form.

Monica Ochoa
To add horns or a beak, start with a square piece of paper. Fold the paper on the diagonal, open and fold the edges to the fold to form a kite shape. Open up the shape, fold on the diagonal again and make several cuts, each one starting along the centerfold line and ending at the next fold line. Open up the shape and overlap the flaps to form a three dimensional horn or beak. Attach the form onto the mask using long flat pieces of tape. Experiment with folding, cutting and overlapping to create different shaped snouts.
Once students have created practice designs they are happy with using the white paper and clear transparent tape, have them construct their final masks using tag board and masking tape. Next, each mask must be wrapped neatly in tin foil so that no tag board is showing. Crumple wads of newspaper to support the inside of the mask. The tin foil will keep the mask from getting soggy and the newspaper will keep the project from collapsing as the plaster bandages are applied.
Applying Plaster
Cut small strips of dry plaster craft bandages. Dip each piece into water and then lay it carefully on the tin foil covered mask. Smooth it out immediately, until the edges lay flat and none of the holes in the cloth are showing. Continue to apply the plaster bandages, overlapping and crisscrossing them, smoothing as you go. Wrap the edges of the bandages neatly around the edges of the mask and around any openings.
Use small amounts of clay or tape on crumpled tin foil to create additional details such as another horn, a tongue or some teeth, and add another coat of the plaster craft over the entire mask, covering both your first coat and your new details.
When the mask is completed covered and dry, coat the entire surface with a smooth layer of modeling paste. Modeling paste, available in art supply stores, will fill in any holes in the plaster bandages and is a lightweight method of strengthening the mask. When the modeling paste is dry, use acrylic paint to decorate the mask with symmetrical patterns and a simple graphic contrasting color scheme. Add a final clear coat of acrylic gloss medium.
The art of Caribbean mask making is always evolving. What traditions will influence the masks your students will create? You’ll find many more useful teaching resources at my website listed below.
Jeyddy Ruiz
Rachel Wintemberg teaches middle school art at Samuel E. Shull School in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
Web Link