Art Through Time: A Global View
Ceremony and Society Art: Barong Mask
For centuries masks have been an integral part of Balinese ritual life.
This carved, wooden mask represents the mythical creature known in Bali as Banaspati Raja, meaning “King of the Forest,” also called the Barong Ket. Lion-like masks such as this one are the most common type, but Barong can take on the features of a number of different animals, including wild boar, dog, deer, and tiger, individually or in composite form.
In Balinese society, all Barong masks are considered to be sacred items and therefore demand careful and intricate artistry. On this mask, the large, bulging eyes of the creature are enhanced with pigment. Two prominent wooden tusks protrude from either side of the mouth. The ornate mane that spreads out around the face consists of elaborately tooled leather and hair has been threaded beneath the lower lip to give the creature a beard.
Although Barong masks have become popular items among foreign collectors, to the Balinese they are much more than objects of aesthetic merit. Every Balinese village has a Barong that it considers its guardian. The Barong mask is a means of both giving the spirit tangible form and harnessing its energy. Stored in the village temple, the mask is brought out on special occasions and asked to bestow blessings on the community or restore the balance of cosmic forces. At these times, the Barong might be placed on an altar or worn, along with a full body costume, in ceremonial procession and theatrical events. During sacred performances, two members of the community dance the Barong mask and costume, which together can weigh as much as one hundred pounds. When one of the dancers, another participant in the performance, or an audience member falls into a trance, it is believed that the spirit of the Barong has been successfully invoked.
Roy W. Hamilton, Curator for Asian and Pacific Collections, Fowler Museum at UCLA
“The Barong is a spirit guardian of a Balinese village. It takes the form of a mask that’s danced by two people. If you were watching such a performance, it might just look like a dance performance to you, but it’s actually very serious religious ritual. And the community gathers to observe it. And very typically, at the climax of the dance, a spiritual presence enters the dancer.
It certainly brings the entire community together. The ceremony is held in one of the temples in the community. These temples are essentially obligatory membership groups for the people of the community who donate time and donate financial support to maintain the temple and to maintain the Barong mask itself.
If you go into Balinese communities today, you’ll see beautiful, beautiful masks, many of them made in relatively recent times because there is this sacred obligation to keep up this tradition and to honor the Barong.”
Belo, Jane. Bali: Rangda and Barong. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.
Fischer, Joseph, and Thomas Cooper. The Folk Art of Bali: The Narrative Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Hobart, Angela. Healing Performances of Bali: Between Darkness and Light. Oxford, New York: Berghahn Books, 2003.
“Mask, Barong.” In Collections Online. The Fowler Museum Web site. http://collections.fowler.ucla.edu.
Slattum, Judy, Hildred Geertz, and Paul Schraub. Balinese Masks: Spirits of Ancient Drama. Singapore: Periplus Editions, 2003.