The masks line the walls – faces emblazoned with stripes and flowers streamlined with hues of crimson, muted blue, and golden yellow. The expressions they wear are countless – staring, frowning, and grinning – their mischievous eyes waiting to tell a story.
Although one could easily mistake the colors for paint, the decorative patterns of Aruba’s popular mopa mopa art instead come from a sort of tree resin that has been stretched, formed, and tinted through an elaborate process dating back a millennium or more.
"Many of Aruba’s return visitors are collectors, acquiring a new piece each year."
“You have smiley face, a sad face, some with fruit on top of their heads and lots of color,” explains Jeanette Monart, who sells this unique art form. “Visitors tell me they’ve never seen anything like it.” Not only are there carved mahogany and cedar masks, but also jewelry boxes, coasters, decorative plates, and animal figurines. “The masks are for good luck to chase away bad spirits, and the rest are animals or landscapes that the indigenous people believed in,” notes Shalinie Rodjan, another vendor.
Originating from the Quillacingas Indians of northern Ecuador and southern Colombia, the process handed down from generation to generation first involves extracting leaf buds from mopa mopa trees. The buds are boiled in water and become a resin-like material similar to gum. Color is added from either mineral stones or vegetable dyes. During the most unusual and unique step, artisans pull the gum into sheets with their hands and mouths; they stretch it out and chew it to give it shine and to get the right consistency.
Lastly, the colored resin is applied to the wood – at times into chiseled-out areas – and then trimmed or designed with a knife. The process is all natural, using no chemicals or glue, and since each piece of artwork is handcrafted, no two are alike. Many of Aruba’s return visitors are collectors, acquiring a new piece each year. They know it’s a piece that will last a lifetime.
These unique works of art can be found at The Mask in Paseo Herencia Mall and Inti upstairs at Royal Plaza Mall.