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Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss provides a descriptive analysis of the origin, meaning, and function of masks for some South American indigenous groups. His argument revolves around the Amazon River region and other locations in South America; it focuses on the Ticuna, the Karaja, the Xerente, the Bakairi, the Timbira, the Bororo and the Caduveo peoples. Lévi-Strauss first approaches masks in terms of their visual forms, though he then delves into the rituals and symbology that they entail on the basis of his belief in an innate connection between aesthetic objects and foundational myths. In Lévi-Strauss’s view, masks are twofold cultural products in that their meaning is both aesthetic and mythical. He observes that in Tropical America the full-body “dress-mask” predominates, though some indigenous peoples from those regions also make what he calls “true masks.”
In 1959, Belgian anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1921-2009) wrote an article entitled Amérique du Sud et Amérique du Nord (París: Éditions des Musées Nationaux, 1960) for the exhibition Le masque [The Mask, 1959-60]. The text was published by Or Musée Guimet in Paris, the institution that organized the exhibition which was on display from December 1959 to September 1960. In Colombia, Mito (1955-1962) magazine opened its December 1959 issue with a special section entitled “Luz de mascaras.” It paid tribute to that exhibition with texts by a number of authors and a fragment of this article by Lévi-Strauss under the shortened title “América del Sur.” The Bogotá-based magazine’s version of Levi-Strauss’s text came out before it was published in France, evidencing once again the cosmopolitanism of the intellectuals involved in Mito and how much 20th-century Colombian artists looked to the European cultural press.
There are almost no references to this article by Lévi-Strauss in the lists of his publications, nor does there seem to have been a re-edition in French, let alone another translation into Spanish. While there is no trace of this article in media other than the Musée Guimet’s publication and Mito, it does bear a relation to other works by Lévi-Strauss on the cultural practices of the indigenous groups that the article examines. Indeed, elsewhere Lévi-Strauss wrote about masks and their aesthetic and mythical meaning in the context of American ethnology. Starting in 1935, these were among his major topics of study and, later, they would yield a great deal of writing. In the book La voie des masques [The Way of the Masks], published in 1975, Lévi-Strauss describes how he first became fascinated with the masks of native American peoples during a visit to the American Museum of Natural History in New York in the forties.