Georgie and Allen Manuel and Cajun Wire Screen Masks
By Ronnie E. Roshto
" A day like this . . . you go out into the countryside, and you hear that haunting melody. And you see 'em. And it's an atmosphere that prevails. You can't quite describe it. You can't quite . . . It's mystery, a little bit of fear, that old time can't-wait-till-Christmas-morning type thing. It's really . . . it's something to partake in because it's something you never forget."
--Georgie Manuel, 19 October 1991
The Courir de Mardi Gras, also known as the Course de Mardi Gras (Ancelet 1989:3), celebrated in Cajun Southwest Louisiana is one of the state's unique folk celebrations. Like its New Orleans counterpart, the Courir de Mardi Gras utilizes specific music, ritual intoxication or inebriation, and distinct costumes, including capuchons (conical-shaped hats) and wire screen masks (Ancelet 1989:1-4).
These wire screen masks were an integral part of the Cajun Mardi Gras as early as the turn of the twentieth century, according to oral sources in the Eunice-Kinder-Chataignier region of Louisiana (Savoy 1984:34; Manuel 1989:5). In later revivals of the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras and its customs in the early 1950s and 1970s, the wire screen mask re-emerged as a key element in rural Louisiana pre-Lenten festivities (Manuel 1991).
Background of Georgie and Allen Manuel
Georgie and Allen Manuel have the essential backgrounds for traditional craftspersons. These two individuals are from the Eunice-Kinder-Chataignier region, which places the wire screen masks within their native geographic area. Both, as well as their families, have been involved with the Cajun Mardi Gras for many years. Mr. and Mrs. Manuel have learned the craft of manufacturing wire screen masks through oral means and in traditional family or community settings.
Mrs. Manuel's involvement and appreciation of the Courir de Mardi Gras can be traced to Alma McGee, her late grandmother. Alma McGee helped raise her granddaughter and made her living primarily as a seamstress. Part of McGee's business included the construction of both costumes and capuchons for the local Mardi Gas. Both costumes and capuchons were made without patterns, since Mrs. Manuel's grandmother could not read or write and the only available patterns were printed in English. Some of this Mardi Gras trade included orders for the local women-only Courir de Mardi Gras. Women were not allowed on the men's run because some wives could not trust their husbands' behavior while in isolated areas and under the influence of alcohol. The separate women's run was held on the Sunday before Mardi Gas or Fat Tuesday (Manuel 1991). Cecelia Manuel, Allen's mother, Georgie's future mother-in-law, and one of the head packers at a local rice mill, was one of the participants. Artemon Manuel, Cecelia's husband, Allen's father, and Georgie's future father-in-law, was the captain or capitaine of the women's Courir de Mardi Gras. Many of the female Courir de Mardi Gras participants wore locally produced wire screen masks while others preferred commercially produced, store-bought plastic ones (Manuel 1991).
Once Georgie and Allen Manuel married, their involvement in Cajun Mardi Gras continued. In 1974, the couple chose not to take their children to New Orleans for Mardi Gras but instead encouraged a group of local scouts, including one of their sons, to start their own traditional Courir de Mardi Gras. This traditional Cajun Mardi Gras featured Cajun music, a flatbed trailer, its own route or run, live chickens, and authentic costumes, including capuchons and wire screen masks made by Georgie and Allen Manuel. Artemon Manuel, Allen's father, insisted on the traditional wire screen masks based on one example that he had saved from the 1950s. In addition to saving this rare mask from the 1950s, the couple also kept on of their first masks from the boys' run. Both quickly learned that aluminum wire screen was not sturdy enough for the masks; Allen Manuel's discovery of some old galvanized wire screen provided the essential material for future masks.
When her grandmother died, Georgie Manuel began making costumes and capuchons; she had been trained in sewing by her grandmother since she was a young girl. Eventually Mrs. Manuel opened a shop, Potpourri, Inc., in Eunice. In addition to hobby and crafts items, this shop continues to stock her costumes and capuchons, her and her husband's wire screen masks, as well as other essential ingredients for the Courir de Mardi Gras such as various kinds of gloves, wigs, and jingle bells.
Mr. and Mrs. Manuel continued making wire screen masks and applied and were accepted into the Louisiana Crafts Marketing Program in the traditional category in 1988. Their listing was included in one of the supplements to the original Fait à la Main (the catalogue of craftspeople published by the Louisiana State Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism) in 1988. The 1991 updated Fait à la Main includes their printed text and a photograph of one of their masks in the ritual crafts subcategory. Since 1988 Georgie and Allen Manuel have shown their work throughout Louisiana and received a certain degree of recognition. Mr. and Mrs. Manuel have exhibited at the Louisiana Native Crafts Festival, part of Festival Acadiens in Lafayette, the Louisiana Folklife Festival in Eunice, Shreveport's Red River Revel, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. One of their masks is included in the permanent exhibit at the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center in Eunice. Other masks are included in Jan Arnow's By Southern Hands (1987:119). Georgie and Allen Manuel have been featured guests on Rendez-vous des Cajuns, the weekly radio program from Eunice's Liberty Theater that is sponsored by the city of Eunice and the National Park Service. Her costumes and capuchons and their wire screen masks have been a part of the Liberty Theater's annual Cajun Mardi Gras program. Many of the Courir de Mardi Gras participants in Eunice and surrounding towns display Georgie and Allen Manuel's work each Fat Tuesday. Fulfilling a lifelong dream, Mrs. Manuel bedecked herself in their creations as one of the riders in the 1991 Eunice Courir de Mardi Gras. On September 20, 1991, Labor of Love: A Rice Farmer's Musical premiered as a special event of Festival Acadiens with a performance in Crowley, Louisiana the following evening. This production included some Courrir de Mardi Gras costumes and capuchons by Georgie Manuel and wire screen masks by Georgie and Allen Manuel.
Historical Background of the Wire Screen Masks
Although the traditional begging songs and capuchons used in the Courir de Mardi Gras can be traced to medieval France (Ancelet 1989:3), establishing a date of origin for the wire screen masks is more difficult.
In an old store in Opelousas, Georgie and Allen Manuel discovered an advertisement from the firm of Strasburger, Pfeiffer & Co. (392 and 394 Broadway, New York City) dated 1877 (Manuel 1989:6). This business imported wire screen masks and sold them by the dozens in five varieties: gentlemen's regular masks, ladies' regular masks, gentlemen's masks with spectacles, gentlemen's masks with beards, and assorted masks with moveable jaws (Manuel 1989:6). No examples of these advertised masks have been found in Cajun Southwest Louisiana. However, these masks were either ordered and sold in southwestern Louisiana or were readily obtainable, for the 1877 advertisement was part of the store's books of files of available merchandise (Manuel 1991).
One mask that is featured in the advertisement's line drawing has puffed or rounded cheeks, a sharp extended nose, eyebrows with individual detail, hair in bangs and brushed from the sides in a form similar to the eyebrows, and holes cut for the pupils of the eyes (Manuel 1989:6). These features do not often appear in wire screen masks from Cajun Southwest Louisiana; Georgie Manuel has obtained a contemporary wire screen mask from Mamou with holes cut for the masker's eyes. The most significant feature of the advertised mask is the enlarged eyes which give the mask a pop-eyed effect. Enlarged, dramatic eyes are apparent in some traditional masks shown in a photograph of a 1930s children's Courir de Mardi Gras (Savoy 1984:26; Prairie Acadian Cultural Center permanent exhibit) and the contemporary masks painted by Georgie Manuel.
At some point in the late 1800s wire screen masks were imported into the Caribbean and became a vital part of the John Canoe (Jonkonnu, or Jukunu) celebration (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:Chapter 2 and notes). Some masks were produced in the Tyrol region of Austria (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:57) and sold in Germany, France, Spain, and South America by the Thuringer Production Company during the last half of the 19th century (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:202,n.51). These commercially produced masks continued to be imported and sold into the early twentieth century or until about 1925 (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:202,n51). In addition to the Austrian imported masks, wire screen masks imported from Germany made their way into the Caribbean, particularly into Belize, by the early part of the twentieth century (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:59).
Whether Austrian, German, or locally-produced, the wire screen masks found in the Caribbean in the early 1900s exemplify what Judith Bettelheim refers to as a traditional or "whiteface" style (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:56). Wire screen masks in the "whiteface" style have rosy pink or cream-colored base coats which imitate Caucasian skin tones, have black eyebrows, black moustaches, red lips, small black beards or goatees, eyes of a realistic size, and no holes for the pupils of the eyes. Some variation occurs in terms of presence or absence of tinted cheeks or selection of colors for the iris of the eyes (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:56,69,83). The masks photographed and included in Caribbean Festival Arts have cheeks that are not puffed or rounded, and the noses are extended and shaped but not pointed or angular like the mask featured in the Opelousas store advertisement. This traditional or "whiteface" wire screen mask style is widespread throughout the Caribbean and is particularly noticeable in photographs from Belize (1907-1914), Nevis (1908), Bermuda (1932), Trinidad (1947), and Jamaica (1952) (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:69,80,83,59,43). This traditional or "whiteface" style is still found in Belize, as evident in a contemporary, locally produced example.
Several examples of this traditional or "whiteface" wire screen mask style are found in Cajun Southwest Louisiana. Georgie and Allen Manuel recently obtained a Courir de Mardi Gras mask made in Duson some time in the early twentieth century. Although this wire screen mask has both large and small sequins, gold paper stars, and small amounts of lead Christmas tree icicles and tinsel, it retains many of the traditional wire screen mask features such as pink or beige base coat and painted faces. The traditional or "white face" mask style is apparent in several wire screen masks made by Evelyn Fruge of Eunice (Savoy 1984:33, Creole State folklife exhibit). One of her masks, worn by her husband Wade Fruge in Savoy's photograph, has painted features similar to the mask from Duson and the contemporary example from Belize.
There is a distinct possibility that Cajun Southwest Louisiana followed a developmental pattern similar to the Caribbean; commercially-produced wire screen masks led to locally-produced imitations (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:67; Manuel 1991). Economic conditions in Cajun Southwest Louisiana in the late 1800s and early 1900s would have severely limited the number of purchased, commercially-produced wire screen masks (Manuel 1991).
In the early 1900s wire screen was available in Cajun Southwest Louisiana, but it was used primarily in place of tin panels on pie safes or kitchen cupboards to protect food from flies and other insects (Manuel 1991). Cajun households tended to use mosquito tenting around beds and wooden, moveable shutters on windows in place of wire screens (Manuel 1991). Economic conditions in early twentieth century Cajun southwestern Louisiana promoted recycling of many material items; masks were used repeatedly with Courir de Mardi Gras participants repainting their masks from previous years (Manuel 1991).
Documentation of the wire screen masks within the Courir de Mardi Gras tradition comes from available photographs and oral accounts. A photograph of a children's Courir de Mardi Gras from the 1930s (Savoy 1984:26; Prairie Acadian Cultural Center permanent exhibit) and another photograph of the Eunice Courir de Mardi Gras of 1908 (Savoy 1984:34) reveal the wire screen masks as an essential, vital element of the Cajun Mardi Gras tradition. Artemon Manuel, Allen's father and a resident of the Eunice-Kinder-Chataignier region, remembered the wire screen masks as a young child in the first decade of the 1900s (Manuel 1991). According to Georgie Manuel, "Area residents remember masks in and around Eunice, Mamou, Ville Platte, Opelousas, Iota, Kaplan, and Abbeville" (Manuel 1989:4). When asked to describe the traditional Courir de Mardi Gras masking tradition, Wade Fruge replied, "We'd wear masks made of screen that had faces painted on them. We'd put material behind the screen sometimes so people couldn't recognize us" (Savoy 1984:34). The wire screen mask from Duson owned by the Manuels retains its cheesecloth lining or backing. This lining or backing undoubtedly aided the disguise in addition to increasing the wearer's comfort.
Masking, hiding one's identity from other participants and even ones' own family, is an essential part of the Courir de Mardi Gras. In the early years of the twentieth century Courir de Mardi Gras runners, or riders, were not allowed to participate without masking (Manuel 1989:2).
Because few wire screen masks have become part of permanent exhibits and the number of vintage photographs is severely limited, it is difficult to establish the characteristics of a traditional Cajun wire screen mask style. Most of the masks, like those made by Georgie and Allen Manuel, are without base coat. These masks conceal the masker's identity as much as those with base coats. Like the masks found in St. Thomas with added cloth or leather noses, ears, or horns (Nunley and Bettelheim 1988:53), some of the later Cajun wire screen masks have added features. Georgie and Allen Manuel have produced only one wire screen mask with an attached acrylic pile fur moustache; all other features on this mask are painted. Jackie Miller of Iota, another craftsperson accepted into the Louisiana Crafts Marketing Program/Fait à la Main, makes masks with added features; and Suson Launey of Iota uses plastic mesh or canvas and acrylic yarn instead of wire screen and paint to create her masks. Two of the Courir de Mardi Gras masks with added features, including one by Jackie Miller are found in the permanent exhibit at Eunice's Prairie Acadian Culture Center. Few examples of the Courir de Mardi Gras masks show holes or openings. Georgie and Allen Manuel have obtained one contemporary wire screen mask from Mamou with holes or openings for the masker's eyes and mouth; this is a rare example since the mask maker created these holes. Courir de Mardi Gras participants sometimes cut openings in completed masks for eating, drinking, or smoking.
There are other references to wire screen masks besides those from Cajun Southwest Louisiana and the Caribbean. While discussing past New Orleans Mardi Gras customs, Allison "Tootie" Montan, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian Tribe, remembered, "Even all the gay people used to mask. They dressed in women's clothes, expensive lace and stockings. Men used to mask as women, and there were women who would mask as men. The masks were made out of screen wire" (Smith and Govenar 1990:61). Mrs. Manuel encountered an unidentified, elderly African-American male at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival who claimed that the men who dressed as monkeys, accompanying their women dressed a baby dolls, wore wire screen masks (Manuel1991). Unfortunately no mask or vintage photographs have surfaced that verify these two accounts. Customers have given Georgie Manuel photographs of two other painted wire screen masks found in Massachusetts. Neither of these masks has added features or information concerning their makers, places of origin, or original purposes (Manuel 1991).
Wire Screen Mask Construction
Both Georgie and Allen Manuel are involved in the construction of their wire screen masks. In 1974 Allen Manuel created the wooden mold which is still used today. This mold, made from a single board, contains four holes: a triangular, elongated nose, two circular eyes, and an oval-shaped mouth. Regardless of the size of the completed mask, the same mold is used.
Cutting and shaping of the wire screen precedes decoration and finish work. According to By Southern Hands (Arnow 1987), a piece of galvanized wire screen about eight or ten inches square is placed on top of the wooden mold after a three inch slit has been made in the wire screen for the chin (Arnow 1987). A piece of galvanized wire screen about eight or ten inches square is placed in the wire screen for the chin (Arnow 1987:119). Using a ball peen hammer, the wire screen is hammered into the holes to create the eyes, nose and mouth. Any of the three areas may be hammered first, and all three areas are hammered until the proper shapes are created. If a specific Courir de Mardi Gras masker is involved, Georgie Manuel will measure the person's face to insure proper fit and comfort. Once hammering is complete, the chin is shaped by overlapping the two wire screen pieces beneath the mouth, and the wire screen is stapled twice. Some Courir de Mardi Gras wire screen masks, such as the example from the 1950s, used solder in place of staples. Other wire screen masks reveal shaped chins without wire cutting, stapling or solder. Georgie and Allen Manuel have made several masks without staples or solder, but the special hammering or shaping is exceptionally frustrating. Should the wire screen develop a hole or become damaged during the shaping of facial features, the partially completed mask is discarded. Closing the edges, painting the mask, and creating additional finish work (if desired) completes the process.
After the features have been shaped, Mrs. Manuel uses a number three size fabric ribbon, folds the ribbon around the exposed wire screen edges, and sews the ribbon by hand directly to the wire screen. Some wire screen masks have metal bands or strips which seal the wire screen edges. A metal band or strip may not be found at the top of the mask. Such strips are missing from the Duson mask and one of the masks purchased by a customer in Massachusetts. Absence of this metal strip or band in the forehead area may indicate that the mask was once attached to a cloth skull or wig cap. This same Massachusetts mask is attached to such a cap (Manuel 1991). Mrs. Manuel recalls how early Courir de Mardi Gras mask makers, without using fabric ribbon or metal strips or bands, would roll cotton into shape around the exposed wire screen edges to prevent the mask from scratching the masker's face (Manuel 1991). Two masks created by Evelyn Fruge that are part of the Creole State folklife exhibit have electric tape strips that seal the wire screen edges. Colors of fabric ribbon, metal strips or bands, or tape strips may or may not match the colors of the decoration on the mask. This concern or lack of concern over color coordination is reflected in the Courir de Mardi Gras costumes.
Both Georgie and Allen Manuel use enamel paint to decorate the masks, and both strive to leave the wire screen as free of paint as possible to make the mask cooler for the masker. Mrs. Manuel repaints masks for some participants, and uses a needle to clean the opening of the wire screen before she begins new base coats (only if desired) and new decorations or facial features.
The couple demonstrates distinct paint or decorative styles. Georgie Manuel decorates the traditional or regular men's and women's masks. She stresses that male participants do not always dress as males for the Courir de Mardi Gras run or ride. Most of her masks demonstrate a smooth, fluid stroke, and the painted features appear as caricatures, almost cartoon-like. Like ritual masks from other cultures, Georgie Manuel's painted masks gain dramatic intensity with their simplicity. Perhaps the most theatrical aspect of her decorative style is the exaggeration of the eyes, providing the masker with a mysterious, other-world look. Mrs. Manuel rarely applies a base coat over the front of the mask. If she does, the base coat suggests Caucasian skin tones and is a variation of the traditional or "whiteface" style found in the Caribbean. In almost twenty years of mask making, Georgie Manuel has not painted a base coat that suggests Negroid skin tones and knows of no existing examples with this distinction.
Allen Manuel's painted masks utilize improvised or spontaneous geometric patterns using a wide range of color. Like those painted by his wife, Mr. Manuel's masks are one-of-a-kind creations. Shapes and strokes evident in his painting style vary with his moods. His painting or decoration almost covers the entire front of the mask, but a certain amount of bare or exposed wire is usually visible.
Once painting is completed, something is attached to the mask for wearing or display. Many Courir de Mardi Gras participants prefer mask elastic with small metal rods, like those found on mass-produced plastic Halloween masks, because the masks stay in place better and are easier to replace should they be removed (Manuel 1991). Most of the masks produced by Georgie and Allen Manuel include the mask elastic, but she is willing to substitute ribbon or cloth strips for tying if a customer requests a more traditional finish. If ribbon or cloth strips are used, the ribbon or cloth may or may not match the fabric ribbon used on the edge of the mask, although Mrs. Manuel admits such strips probably would, particularly if the same fabric ribbon could be used on the mask's edges or borders.
Some of their masks have other additions. One rare example has an acrylic pile fur moustache, but the rest of the features are painted. Several of their masks have decorative fringe; either the commercially-produced fringe sold in fabric stories or the cloth fringe found on Courir de Mardi Gras capuchons and costumes. Other masks have additional fabric or decorative elements, but these masks are probably purchased for use as wall hangings rather than as masks to be worn on the Courir de Mardi Gras run or ride.
This essay is an attempt to record the artistic efforts of Georgie and Allen Manuel, to present similarities between Cajun and Caribbean wire screen masks and their development, and to explain the construction procedures involving such masks. Wire screen masks and their various traditions have received little attention from folklorists, anthropologists, and ethnographers. Elaine Eff, Baltimore folklorist and co-founder of the Painted Screen Society of Baltimore, has done extensive fieldwork concerning the painted window and door screen within her city, but this Baltimore tradition did not include mask making (Eff 1988:A-13). Unlike the painted screens of Baltimore, there is not intensive documentation for the painted wire screen mask of Cajun Southwest Louisiana.
Additional fieldwork is needed in both Cajun Southwest Louisiana and throughout the Caribbean, since the wire screen masks appear as reoccurring visual elements in both John Canoe and Mardi Gras celebrations. Although Bettelheim has collected sufficient Caribbean examples to categorize styles, there are not enough available Cajun masks, particularly early ones. Additional information will aid in understanding the Courir de Mardi Gras's traditions and its artistic, cultural, and historical significance.
The author would like to thank a number of individuals who have contributed to the development of this essay: Wayne McConnell, a colleague at Poland Junior High School, Alexandria, Louisiana for obtaining the Belize wire screen mask in 1990; Maida Owens, Louisiana Division of the Arts for providing information about certain items in the Creole State folklife exhibit; Ranger Debra Ceaser, Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, Eunice, Louisiana for locating additional information about several items on display in the center's permanent exhibit; Dr. Frank de Caro, LSU, for his encouragement, suggestions, and patience; and Georgie Manuel for her friendship and generosity in sharing her culture, her work, her family, and her life.
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Alma McGee, Cecelia Manuel, and Artemon Manuel.
Ancelet, Barry Jean. 1989. "Capitaine, Capitaine, voyage ton flag" : The Traditional Cajun Country Mardi Gras. Lafayette: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana.
Arnow, Jan. 1987. By Southern Hands: A Celebration of Craft Traditions in the South. Birmingham: Oxmoor House.
Eff, Elaine. 1988. Screen Painters: Unique Treasures in Our Rowhouse Midst."Baltimore Evening Sun 7 June 1988, A-13.
Manual, Georgie. 1989. Cajun Mardi Gras. Photocopy.
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Savoy, Ann. 1984. Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People. Eunice: Bluebird Press.
Smith, Michael P., and Alan Govenor. 1990. A Joyful Noise: A Celebration of New Orleans Music. Dallas: Taylor Publishing.
Creole State. 1985-2002. The Creole State: An Exhibition of Louisiana Folklife. Louisiana Folklife Program, Louisiana Division of the Arts. Louisiana State Capitol, Baton Rouge.
Prairie Acadian Cultural Center. 1991-. Permanent exhibit, Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, Eunice, Louisiana.