Ritual Masks for a World in Crisis

By Denilson Baniwa

The elders say that the God of Maladies* has a coat that’s similar to a sloth’s, and when it comes upon a sick spirit, it embraces it and suffocates it until death, much as a sloth grasps onto an embaubeira tree. If nothing is done and the shaman isn’t strong enough to negotiate with the God of Maladies, the sick person’s spirit departs forever. They say that the world we live in is the result of the enormous wars between human beings and the natural world. We have created a contrast between this planet and the Cosmos. That’s why we need shamans, healers, and all those who open communication with the Universe, safeguarding our life on this planet.

But we often forget that we live in a finite place and need to care for it. We’ve been working against essential well-being. For a while now we’ve been struggling to emancipate ourselves from systems of power. We’ve fallen into misfortune, and signs from the God of Maladies are showing up.

With the arrival of our “discoverers” came new challenges, illnesses we weren’t accustomed to seeing. Worlds were snuffed out, peoples became extinct, villages were finished off forever. We had to learn new rituals and methods to appease the God of Maladies. Antibiotics, vaccines, medicine in glass bottles or wrapped in plastic seemed to us like good enough home remedies. But they didn’t appease him. This is the moment, now, when we are reliving that spreading crisis, that pain. Covid-19, since it’s something that’s never been seen, is leading us to create new healing rituals and health care treatments so that we can again appease the God of Maladies.


The sacred masks, which we learned from our Universe-Grandparents, made of wood, fibers, clay, gourds, and bird feathers, are a reminder of the time of our origin and respect for our creators. They’re passwords to access the Cosmos, the invisible, the sacred, the supernatural, so important for maintaining order within the chaos, what we draw from to gladden and soothe the Universe, which now have gotten an update among our various indigenous peoples. We’ve been required to use surgical or hand-sewn masks, until now unknown among us, to protect us from the spirit of Covid-19. Of course, along with the masks came the rules on how to use them effectively, because it’s not enough to put the mask on your face, you have to know the access codes for the means of protection. A firmware update that the God of Maladies didn’t make available.

These rituals today didn’t come from our grandparents’ mouths. In the modern world, they arrive printed in pamphlets or on television, which show how the rituals have to be done step by step, and also show us what happens when we don’t follow the rituals correctly, no longer with metaphors and figures of speech, but with videos of the dead being buried in hastily dug open graves. Appalling. Horrifying! We weren’t prepared. But there’s still time for us to survive.

Though the rituals now are delivered to us almost like faith’s shipments, we have a chance here. Wash your hands methodically, disinfect with 70% alcohol, among other little rituals that are part of following the required rules.

Quarantine – no social gatherings, no leaving the house. If you’re unmarried and aren’t living together, no sex. No visiting your relatives for Sunday lunch, and definitely no grabbing a beer after work with your colleagues. Eat a healthy diet, drink water, do your exercises. Maintain a strong immune system. For the best protection, always wear masks. Ritual masks for a world in crisis.

May the God of Maladies see that we are fulfilling all the rituals, and soon be soothed. May our people survive this, one more end of the world.

*The God of Maladies is a translation from our language, used here for spiritual protection. I don’t want Him to find out that I’m speaking his name without permission.

Denilson Baniwa, “Ritual Masks for a World in Crisis”

Self-portraits created in April 2020 during quarantine.

Denilson Baniwa was born in Barcelos, Amazonas, Brazil, in 1984. His art explores his experience of being Indigenous in the current moment, combining traditional and contemporary Indigenous references, and making use of Western icons to raise awareness about the struggle of Indigenous peoples in various media and languages. His work was showcased at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, at Centro Cultural São Paulo (CCSP), Itaú Cultural, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (CCBB), at the Arts Centre of the Federal Fluminense University (UFF), as well as various other venues. He was also one of the guest artists at Amazonian Poetics, a Brazil LAB/Princeton University and Museu Nacional/UFRJ workshop held at Princeton University in 2019.

Denilson Baniwa created the artwork “Ritual Masks for a World in Crisis” for the IMS Convida programme, which encourages artistic creation during the coronavirus quarantine: https://convida.ims.com.br/

Translated from the Portuguese original by Tiffany Higgins