Review of Lowell Fiet’s “An Archipelago of Caribbean Masks”

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Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes (80grados) reviews Lowell Fiet’s An Archipelago of Caribbean Masks (Ian Randle Publishers and Editorial Isla Negra, 2019).

An Archipelago of Caribbean Masks (Ian Randle Publishers and Editorial Isla Negra, 2019)—by renowned theater critic, mask maker and collector Lowell Fiet—is an important contribution to studies on the festive arts of the Caribbean. Fiet is a retired professor from the English Department of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, where he taught for almost forty years and directed the Institute for Caribbean Studies and the Interdisciplinary Studies Program. The author has also maintained a practice of theater creation and the committed use of theater and performance as empowerment tools for young people as well as to promote social change. As a theater critic for the weekly Claridad supplement “En Rojo,” Fiet has reviewed hundreds of plays and performances, reaching a diverse audience for many decades, also publishing books such as El teatro puertorriqueño reimaginado: notas críticas sobre la creación dramática y el performance [Puerto Rican Theater Reimagined: Critical Notes on Dramatic Creation and Performance] (Ediciones Callejón, 2004) and Caballeros, Vejigantes, Locas y Viejos: Santiago Apóstol y los performeros afropuertorriqueños (Terranova Editores, 2007) [Caballeros, Vejigantes, Locas and Viejos: Santiago Apóstol and Afro-Puerto Rican Performers].

Beautifully illustrated with photos mostly by the author himself, An Archipelago of Caribbean Masks has been printed in large format, on high quality glossy paper, with a highly innovative typographic design by Iván Figueroa Luciano. Its striking cover has a photo of a young woman playing the role of a vejigante in Loíza, Puerto Rico, in 2018. This complex photo already anticipates the persistence of the past and the innovation and change of the present, both in the elaboration of the masks themselves (their colors, shape, and protruding teeth) as well as who wears them and how they are used (for example, those worn by women). Fiet focuses his study on Puerto Rico, an archipelago that connects, in a rhizomatic way, with other locations in the broader Caribbean.

The book is in English, but any reader will be able to appreciate the careful visual documentation of masks and masqueraders, the artisans who make them, and the performers or individuals who wear them for religious and carnival festivities through the region. As a result of a true sense of adventure and social commitment, Fiet tells of his travels through the Caribbean, turning the book into a catalog of cultural practices, with careful attention to the multiple meanings of the masks and the different materials used for their construction. In turn, it is a recognition of the cultural persistence and innovation in the face of globalization—a recognition of the fact that these ancestral practices are still alive, although in some contexts they are being transformed as they come into contact with mass media, commercialization, and the importation of synthetic masks from the United States and elsewhere.

The book is divided into six chapters. In the brief preface, the author clarifies that it is not a book about carnival, but rather about masks and their use in the context of festive arts (“festival arts”). Fiet summarizes his intentions as follows:

“I explore what masks mean, what it means to wear them, their relationship to the costumes or attire of specific characters and the movements, on the one hand; and the celebratory traditions from which they emerge, on the other, their presumed metaphorical and discursive characteristics, and more importantly, who makes the masks and how they are made: their materials and shape. As a theater and performance critic and historian, as well as a mask maker and performance maker, the Puerto Rican Vejigante (trickster or devil) mask assumed a leading role in my visual imagination more than forty years” [. . .].

For Fiet, creating and wearing masks at festivals and demonstrations serve to regain our humanity and to become human again. As he says, “Creating masks offers us the opportunity to reinvent the pleasure of sharing. Joining as performers in festivals or in demonstrations helps us recover our shared humanity—we become people again, as the Kalahari would say—giving us back that humanity that the powerful forces around us try to take away from us” [. . .].

[The reviewer points out that this review was first published in the journal Caribbean Studies 47, no. 2 (July-December 2019): 173–177.]

Excerpts translated by Ivette Romero. For full review, see https://www.80grados.net/un-archipielago-de-mascaras-caribenas/

Also see https://ianrandlepublishers.com/product/an-archipelago-of-caribbean-masks/ and http://www.editorialislanegra.com/index.php?option=com_virtuemart&view=productdetails&virtuemart_product_id=397&virtuemart_category_id=11

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