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A brave face

John Reeve reveals the extreme hardship facing Bolivian miners, whose dramatic carnival masks are weapons against evil and bad luck

+This psychedelic object is a carnival mask designed to be worn by dancers in the diablada (devil dance), during a carnival in Bolivia. It has the characteristic striped horns, bright red face, silvery crown and, on top, a fantastic bird with a writhing snake in its beak. You can probably spot other insect life, too. The mask was originally designed, commissioned and worn by Jorge Vargas in 1984. This copy was commissioned from artist Freddy Aguilar the following year for the British Museum collection.

These masks and costumes combine plaster, metal, feathers, cotton, plastic and leather in riotous colours. They are a way for people to express their individual response to the harsh conditions in which they live. The extreme imagery derives from their experience of extreme exploitation and survival, in mines high up in the Andes. This mask can be seen in the British Museum's new Gallery of Living and Dying, which explores the ways in which people around the world search for well being in the face of illness and suffering, from Bolivia to the Bay of Bengal, and in Pacific and North American cultures. To understand the mask, we need to look at the life of the mining community from which it comes.

Carnival is important throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. In Bolivia, the crucial date is late February, particularly the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. This is the day when miners in the Andes really let their hair down, wearing elaborate costumes in dances and processions, or "fiestas". They certainly need to, as working conditions are very hard at high altitudes. The lack of oxygen causes altitude sickness and at heights of 3,000 metres and more, winter nights are ferociously cold. Miners from rural communities spend part or all of the year extracting tin and other minerals from deep veins in the hard rock. These men age quickly. One visitor to the mines, who has posted a description of his trip on the internet (, tells of "little glinty-eyed, hunched miners sweating their way through the hellish tunnelsI ragged clothes barely clung to their glistening bodies, their cheeks bulged with huge wads of coca leaves and their expressionsI vacant".

Silver and mining has dominated life in Bolivia since 1557. It made the Spanish conquistadors very rich, so that their bullion ships attracted pirates and buccaneers, such as England's Sir Francis Drake. Silver turned the Bolivian mining town of Potosi into one of the largest outside Asia, with a population of 160,000 in the mid-17th century.

Many children are employed in the mines, some as young as six. One estimate is that as many as eight million workers died in the Andean mines over the centuries, many of them with lungs full of cyanide and asbestos.

Fiestas play an important part in Bolivian mining life and are often organised by communities and factories at great expense. Costumes and masks offer an opportunity to display wealth and status and to forget about work and hardship. This mask is part of a carnival costume from Oruro. Situated between Potosi and the modern capital La Paz, it is one of the world's richest tin mines. After the arrival of the railways, it created some of the world's richest men in the past century. But this wealth, wrenched from the earth, was not shared with those who made it possible. In La Morenada, one of the most famous dances in the Oruro fiesta, black slaves are weighed down with heavy, silvery costumes symbolising the wealth of their owners, and with chained feet to show their slavery.

Bolivians anchor their fiestas to saints' days, but they are very unsaintly in style. For instance, the archangel Michael and the Virgin Mary appear alongside people dressed as condors, bears and devils. Dancing the diablada, they sport surreal toads, vipers and ants in their costumes, as you can see in this mask. Such images hark back to an indigenous animist religion.

Bolivian miners believe these creatures, representing the evil lurking in mines, will be destroyed through the good influence of the local Virgin of El Socavon. They make offerings of fiery alcohol to Pachamama, "the provider" goddess, with one mouthful spilled on the ground for every drink consumed. In the mine, drink and coca leaves are also offered to Tio, the god of the underworld, to help strike a rich vein and avoid accidents.

On the big day of the carnival in Oruro, 30,000 costumed dancers wearing masks as ornate as this are on the streets, accompanied by 10,000 musicians playing brass and percussion instruments. Festivities go on for up to 20 hours and then life slowly returns to normal. Bright costumes and musical instruments are put away until the next fiesta, or sometimes discarded. The special, very long pan-pipes played at carnival, which relate to the flowering of crops and fruits, are replaced by "dry season instruments", such as guitars. Thus people in the Bolivian Andes keep in touch with the Earth and the elements controlling their lives.

John Reeve is a freelance education consultant

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