“…Ibiza, that strange and colourful island
where people retreat to take off their masks,
or don new ones…”
“Nina”, Nina van Pallandt, 1973
Image: Ibiza….a dream? Tony Keeler, 1973
During the 1960´s they began to come – the hippies, the foreigners, descending on a pine-clad island in the Mediterranean which, until that point, had an isolated, almost-medieval culture. Here, on red earth, the hippies roamed barefoot to the sounds of goat bells, and cicadas – sensing through the preserved, peasant traditions and folklore of Eivissa a strange, ancient magic.
The foreigners used paint and canvas, word, dance and rhythm to give voice to this magic… they gathered often, but especially on full moon nights, to celebrate a wild, dark, and addictive force, known by those who built the Carthaginian cult here, millenia ago, as the moon goddess, Tanit. And legend has it that in those days, nothing more was required for these gatherings than a simple, white-washed country finca… it was the souls in attendance who harnessed their own colours and imaginations – creating unscripted, moonlight-drenched happenings on a tiny forested landmass.
Over decades, the lure of this strange supernatural force, activated by the simplicity of a rhythmic beat, magnetized more and more followers. Thousands heeded its call. The white-washed country fincas grew into Pacha, Priviledge and Amnesia – the superclubs – temples of colour, light, sound and spectacle… where all-night ceremonies took place, hosting thousands of attendees at a time, all seeking the ultimate earthly experience of sensory stimulation, togetherness, communitas.
A new cult grew on an island which had, until then, been known as Eivissa… it swelled to such mighty proportions, as an independent entity on this foreign soil, that it invented a new, recognisable name for its international tribe – Ibiza. But as soon as this new name was conceived, a separation began. The people who flocked to the modern temples of Ibiza didn´t know the soil of Eivissa – nor did they speak its language. Revellers danced beneath a full moon, absorbing the magical forces of an ancient Phoenician goddess who had for centuries brought fertility to the island´s fields, valleys and orchards, but left without caring to visit them – or the springs and wells that had always fed them. The visitors absorbed this magic for themselves, and then left.
Over the decades, a cultural masking had taken place – over the fragile, soft and quiet culture of Eivissa, something hard-edged, loud and attention-seeking had been placed – a thing called Ibiza. A dazzling mask, a seductive mask, a mask promising infinite things… which could not all be delivered without the causing of some kind of harm.
Nwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.
In village communities of Burkina Faso, West Africa, artists are commissioned by village elders to create the tall, striking, wooden Bwa plank masks, covered with an intricate language of black and white symbols. The symbolism on the masks is a coded map – a guide to all that is sacred to that particular community… the masks are worn at ritual dances, corresponding with specific phases of the lunar calendar and marking important rites of passage for members of the community.
In 2017, on the Spanish island of Ibiza, summer is just beginning, and with it, a season of not completely dissimilar mass-dances in those giant superclub temples. One of them, Woomoon, shapes its identity around ideas of ritual, and the cycles of the moon, more than any other. Here, a mask-maker has just been commissioned to make a set of masks – their only guidance being an image – of two traditional Bwa plank masks from Burkina Faso.
Work in progress: Bwa plank masks, traditional shape designs
The mask-maker sets to work on their commission. They are not given any obligation to acknowledge the traditional meaning of these masks, whose style and aesthetic they are about to adopt. Whether they do or they do not, will not affect the price they will be paid, or the credit they will be given.
But maybe no one is more aware than a mask-maker of the difference between the external and the internal – the outward displayed image, and the internal meaning of something. They are two separate worlds, polar opposites, and to blur them would be… the greatest possible lie that a mask-maker could ever make. So the mask-maker tries, in their way, learn the language of the Bwa plank masks. Perhaps it is an embarrassingly superficial understanding… but to the Ibizan mask-maker, the clumsy attempt is important – no, it´s essential.
Work in progress: mask designs
The mask-maker of Ibiza, just as those of Burkina Faso, gains the best possible cultural understanding of the symbols at their disposal. They then combine it with their imagination, and create their own unique design – a story through symbols.
Work in progress: painting the masks
The story of the masks goes something like this. The crescent moon at the top, just as in the African tradition, is the ´moon of masks´- the moon that shines during the season in which the dance is performed. The checkerboard pattern represents the separation of knowledge and ignorance, initiated and uninitiated. In the Burkina Faso communities, the elders sit on dark hides whilst the fresher, younger initiates sit on lighter hides… in this case, the checkerboard pattern represents the two different cultures of Ibiza and Eivissa, which sit beside, but at odds with each other.
The white zig-zags surrounding the central square panel represent two things in the traditional Bwa plank mask language – first, the serpent that is sacred to Burkina Faso, and secondly, the path of improper behaviour in village society. In these Ibizan masks, the zig-zags symbolise the same things: the destructive, ecologically damaging behaviour of people driven to Ibiza for purely hedonistic reasons, and also – the relatively new snake infestation that has taken place on the island in recent years – an island which, previously, the Phoenician settlers had said to be ‘blessed by the Gods’ because no harmful creatures inhabited it. The new arrival of a poisonous reptile to a once blessed, and harm-free land, is seen by some as a warning.
Woomoon: image by Valya Karchevskaya @Phantomography
The central symbol on each of the masks fuses traditional Bwa plank mask meaning with the visual language created by Violeta Galera, Woomoon´s lead artist. In her language, the motif represents a breast – symbolising creativity and fertility. In the Bwa plank mask language, a circular ring with a dot in the centre represents ‘sacred wells which never run dry’. In this case, the symbol stands for the wells of the island – ancient, sacred sites of ceremony in honour of Tanit, goddess of fertility – still celebrated year on year by the folk dance traditions of Eivissa, but largely overlooked by the tourist visitors of Ibiza.
Beneath the cylindrical mouth of each mask are three, barely visible black triangles. In the Bwa plank mask tradition these represent three tears for the death of an elder. On these masks, they are three tears for the death of Ibiza´s river, the Riu de Santa Eularia – a once abundant river which traversed the island from its source in the North West to its mouth in the East – a river whose gradual demise over the last four decades took place in parallel with the expansion of tourism, and the increasing depletion of a limited water supply.
Woomoon at Amnezia (Woomoon Facebook page)
In the villages of Burkina Faso, the masks are given initiatory names by their creators, based on the unique combination of motifs used. In public performances, however, a different name is given to the masks, chosen by their new owner. In a similar fashion, the mask-maker of Ibiza names each of their masks after two magical wells in the north of the island – Balàfia and Atzaro – but from the day of the first performance onwards, these names will not be known, acknowledged or used.
Woomoon: image by Valya Karchevskaya @Phantomography
The mask-maker lets the season of summer dances pass by, in those giant superclub temples of Ibiza, and observes an endless stream of images celebrating two, nameless masks. As the summer recedes, and the temples of Ibiza shut their doors, those who once flocked here go elsewhere. The season is over.
Now, the mask-maker can tell their story. The story behind a mask – because in the end, all masks come off. The story behind an image – because with time, all images lose their appeal. The story of two masks whose true names are Balàfia and Atzaro, named after two wells on an island blessed by a goddess of hedonism, and fertility… an island whose true name is Eivissa.
This is the week that everything changes. This is the week that the fine line between art…and business…is drawn. This is the week that tests the possibly of doing things with commercial success – but also with heart. This is the week that love and devotion have to be measured, limited, reduced. This is the week that I must somehow define my ´price´. This is the week that I have to wrap one of my most treasured objects in cellophane and plaster of paris, not knowing for sure that I will ever actually be able to remove it.
This is the week I become an almost-commercial podenco builder.
First, they asked me if I would sell them my two podenco puppets – based on the Ibizan hunting hound brought with the Phoenicians from Ancient Egypt, several thousand years ago. The proposition was disturbing – or maybe, what really disturbed me was how an almighty institution like that could make me feel, simply by suggesting that I give to them what is dear and precious to me for personal, creative and financial reasons. So then we thought of a better plan – that I would make them two brand new podencos of their very own. But based on the available budget, I would need to make these two podencos in five days, and the original ones took about three weeks…
Suddenly I´m no longer a craftsperson doing things for the love of it. I´m going commercial – it´s time to be scrupulous, its time to be cold and calculated. Time is of the essence – as well as being experimental with my mindset, this week I am going to be experimental with my medium. It´s time to try plaster of paris…
I´ve wrapped him in plastic and sellotape. And though it´s only monday morning of this strangest of strange weeks, I have already begun to converse with the podencos. I have told them that, this week, they have to do an unheard of thing – something I can barely believe I am asking them to do. They have to sacrifice themselves, offer themselves up, in order to give birth to a new set of podencos. We have discussed this at length. I have listened to their concerns, answered their questions. In principle, only one of them needs to be sacrificed, so it takes a while to reach the delicate decision of which podenco will be the one. The appointed dog has stepped forward, been covered with plastic and a liberal sponging of olive oil, and now he´s being mummified with plaster of paris bandages…a strangely apt ritual echoing those of his fatherland, Ancient Egypt.
But it will soon go disastrously wrong, and the first big lesson will be delivered. After three hours I realise that that embracing a new, unfamiliar medium last minute, as a supposedly quicker, more durable and convenient solution to my familiar cardboard, has been a mistake. I am left with two, irregular-shaped plaster halves of a podenco head which do not fit together, a studio covered in white powder, and a beloved podenco puppet covered in ripped plastic, white plaster stains, and a scalpel cut running down the front and back of its body. I have almost lost an entire working day to this failed mummification experiment, and I have also nearly lost one of my most prized puppets. My first day´s attempt at being a commercially successful artist has not been successful.
Lesson two: only under real pressure do you discover what you are capable of, what you know best, and how to make sound decisions. With one fifth of my making days lost already, I´ve cleaned the white plaster grime out of my studio and I am starting afresh with cardboard. Today, some kind of epiphany takes place. I feel strangely calm as I re-wrap the podenco in a fresh coating of plastic and sellotape, cook cornflour paste and soak my first batch of cardboard scraps. I am seriously behind schedule, but I feel almost drugged by the bliss of returning to the medium that I know and love… it has ease and familiarity. The cornflour paste is still warm, I am somehow soothed by the earthy brown and beige tones of the cardboard as I squeeze water out of my ripped cardboard pieces. This, the world of cardboard-mache, is the world I belong in, and it was ridiculous to think of trying to jump into another one.
This morning, time is of the absolute essence, but something magical is happening – I´m in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi´s flow state. The pressure´s on, but I feel I´m where I need to be, and doing the thing that I do best. Never before have I been so aware of the fact that I am being paid a quite decent wage, right now, to do all of the things which used to be a weird craft obsession – ripping, cutting, gluing and pasting cardboard in a particular way, based on having done it many times, each time learning new, better ways to do it. It begins to dawn on me that perhaps this niche cardboard skill of mine is useful, valuable – that it might even earn me a living.
In a couple of hours I have literally created my first new podenco. That felt too easy. He bakes in the midday sun outside the studio, and then I cut down the front, separate the two sides, and release my old, plastic covered podenco from within. It´s a weird moment. I feel like a midwife engaged in an ancient Egyptian birthing rite. When the cellophane-wrapped podenco beneath is liberated once more, I hug it.
The first new, post-podenco is sculpted into life by the end of the day. And I must admit, this is when one of several perplexing questions of the week arises… If it is actually so very easy to reproduce my creations on demand, for the super-rich Ibiza clubbing industry, does that mean that my original creations have less value…?
We are most certainly in the flow. It´s all a happy blur of Radio 4, Michael Meade podcasts and coffee. I seem to now have four podencos, and it´s still only wednesday. How has this happened? The new ones are smooth and beautiful – slightly bigger than the original ones, they seem a different breed. More meaty, stocky. Older, wiser.
I´m giving them their own breastplate, with the Woomoon symbol, as requested, the shape of a crescent moon. And as I make these creatures my ideas about them are changing. Previously, it had felt really important to make sure that they were different from my own podencos – painted differently from my usual style, different colours – black and gold and orange? These will be the ´commercial´ podencos, I thought. I don´t want anyone to confuse them with the old,´authentic´ ones…
But now I´m realising that I cannot make two new podencos, or in fact anything, without them being some kind of authentic expression of me. Regardless of constraints of time or money, I can´t just make a ´commercial´thing. Yes, they are a very different breed, these new hounds. Their creation, their reason for being here is completely different to that of the originals….and yet they have unwittingly become two more creations that have meaning to me, whether I like it or not. They have been made solely for commercial reasons – their price and value was negotiated and fixed before they came into being – and yet they´ve still become…meaningful creatures. They might be the commercial podencos, but they have their own story – just a different story.
They are getting different eyes, these new, fancy podencos. I would like them to be more Egyptian, and for their original brother and sister podencos to remain the more earthy, Eivissan countryside descendants – less Anubis, more island hunting hound. These new ones are feisty, a bit intimidating, a bit sexy. Clubland will just love them.
When I´m looking at my family of four podencos, I like to mix them up. They seem different variations of the same family. In a few days time, two of them will stay in the countryside of Balafia, San Lorenzo, whilst the other two will descend to the South, and have special boxes made for them – they will either be in their special protective boxes, or performing – parading through the throngs of fashionable people, to the sounds of house, tribal and techno music. But these two different variations still come from the same place, and are of the same family. It amazes me that these two breeds sit well together. It amazes me that even in the commercial domain, things can feel special, meaningful, even a little magical. It is possible. It amazes me that during the course of one week doing a supposedly calculated, ´commercial´ job, things can unfold which are unexpected, and which simply could not have been controlled or predicted. I suddenly realise that is what makes art meaningful, and magical.
I´ve headed South. I´ve put a special frock on. I am thirsty, because I wanted to buy a drink but I discovered they cost 12 Euros. But apart from that, I am happy to be here and absorb the typically Ibizan atmosphere – the distant pine-forested hills are soaked in gold, the music is tribal, hippies and shamans mix with millionaires and botoxed Instagram celebrities. A bundle of nonsensical contradictions which somehow gel together…nothing new there. Welcome to Ibiza.
A backstage door opens, and a pair of tall podenco ears emerge, then another pair. Far away, across the crowd, a parade has begun, weaving between the people. I can see my podencos approaching me – but already something has changed. On the journey South they slipped from me and became someone or something else´s – not mine. I´m glad to let them go. I am not attached to them. I think I have already lost interest in them.
* * *
Days later, the exhaustion has eased, and I´m doing an important thing. I mix a new batch of cornflour paste, soak some cardboard, and start the careful task of mending my podencos – sealing over the scalpel blade cuts and wounds which were inflicted for the sake of birthing their new Egyptian, clubland ancestors. I use papier-mache to bandage over the cut marks. The new cardboard patches are a slightly different colour, so the two dogs will now have a paler strip running down the middle of their faces. And I give the hounds a gift I had promised them, a reward for all that they went through. A new element of folkloric decoration – braided palm-leaf belts, with a repeat pattern of string semi-circles above. It was important to do this, as a demonstration of what value really is, to me, even in the commercial world. Time. Attention. Love. Devotion. Craft.
And now things are much as they were before. I don´t think I have become commercially successful. It´s still a baffling subject to me. I still have two podenco puppets, and I´m very attached to them – more so than before. These days they are more decorated, and they also have an odd, pale streak down the centre of their faces. It´s a long story.
In March 2017 I was asked to write a piece for the wonderful Dark Mountain Project exploring my use of a myth to creatively engage people with a place, a land, and its crisis. I wrote about Ibiza. Here is the article…
This week we continue our series about the role of mythology in uncertain times. We’ve asked six writers who work with story – as teachers, storytellers, anthropologists, poets, performers, activists – to choose ‘a myth we live by’ and explore what a mythological response to an age of converging crises might look like. Today we bring you an exploration of the mythological underside of the paradise island Ibiza, by Theatre of the Ancients founder Joanna Hruby (with images by Can Gato Ibiza).
It’s a warm afternoon in late May, and a small crowd gathers on a circular platform overlooking a valley of almond, lemon and carob trees. Soft, slightly melancholic music fills the air, and people wear headdresses of freshly gathered rosemary, rockrose and pine. A tapestry hangs beneath a canvas awning;it shows the simple, curved motif of a universal symbol – the tree of life. The crowd starts to hush and story is told – about an ancient fallen goddess, her once-fertile island, and a mythical tree of life whose leaves have been lost. In this little valley in Ibiza, an immersive theatre performance is about to begin, called the Walk of the Moon.
For some reason, my childhood summer holidays on the island always began at night time. Bleary-eyed after slow transit along England’s grey motorways, through airport departure lounges, we would finally find ourselves driving a winding road into endless forest. Now, that long-anticipated moment; I would roll down the car window and inhale my first lungful of that mysterious, sweet pine scent suspended in the warm night air, a hypnotic frenzy of cicadas filling my ears. I felt alive. The island seemed to hold something for me, promise me something I didn’t understand.
Only later in life did it become clear that the Ibiza I knew was not the tacky tourist destination familiar to my English counterparts. Aged 20, working dismal shifts in my local village pub to fund a return trip to the island, I told one of the regulars of my plans. He placed his pint down on the counter and said solemnly, his eyes never leaving the glass, ‘But I thought you were better than that, Jo.’
That summer my best friend and I headed to the tourist town of San Antonio for a two-week package holiday. On our last morning we missed the return flight, emptied our suitcases on the beach next to the hotel, and headed to a roundabout on the edge of town. There, we stuck our our thumbs. Neither of us had hitchhiked before. When the first car pulled over we got in, telling the driver: ‘Vamos al norte’ – we’re going north.
Moon phase: waning. The first group embarks on the route. They weave along a path through aloe vera plants and over a low stone wall. On the other side, the Hag awaits – with rat-tailed braids and a cryptic symbol carved into an avocado seed on her forehead. She teases and cajoles the walkers, begging them to confess their personal weaknesses and fears – obstacles to the coming quest. When satisfied, the Hag points the walkers towards the yurt, where a masked figure chants and cleanses the group with incenses in preparation for the journey ahead.
That first summer we hitchhiked our way around the north. We slept on beaches, under trees, in caves. We surrendered ourselves to the road, and one by one the teachers appeared, like chapters in an unfolding saga: eccentrics, lost souls, madmen, one or two wandering sadhus playing the flute beneath a full moon… We danced to trance music in the forest, ate Weetabix in an old hippy’s boat up a mountain. Our hearts felt open. It seemed like anything was possible, as though we were protected by some kind of island magic.
But what was this magic? People spoke of Ibiza’s neighbouring ‘magnetic’ rock, Es Vedra, where a monk meditated in the 1800s and reported meeting ethereal light beings. They talked of Nostradamus, who, according to local urban legend, once prophesied that when nuclear disaster befalls the planet, Ibiza’s unusual wind patterns would make it ‘Earth’s final refuge’.
But the most consistent explanation was Tanit. She was, I was told, the goddess of Ibiza, recognised by the Phoenicians, the ancient civilisation which settled on the island in 654 BC, naming it Iboshim, after the Egyptian god Bes. The island became a major Phoenician trading post, but also a place of worship to Tanit – powerful and destructive; goddess of dance and hedonism. Indeed, it did all seem an uncanny coincidence on the very island which shaped rave culture – an island where people are known to lose it, or lose themselves…
‘You’ll know if Tanit wants you to stay or go…’ repeated the island mantra. But for 15 years I wasn’t sure.
Moon phase: new. In the tipi are goblets, vessels and vases filled with water. A six-year-old girl conducts the ceremony, urging the group to harness their deepest desires to restore leaves to Tanit’s bare tree of life. The group writes messages on slips of paper, then rolls each one within a ball of wet clay, like a seed encased in earth. The girl sprinkles drops of water over each clay-encased wish, and the walkers continue their journey, seed-balls held carefully in the palms of their hands.
I would revisit the island every couple of years – it became some kind of strange, guilty secret. I had become another of those inexplicably drawn to this pine-covered island whose history was shaped by transient visitors, settlers and invaders. The Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, finally the Catalans – each had left their traces on an island which, ultimately, never seemed to belong to anyone. From the 1950s, new foreign visitors arrived, bringing beatnik and counterculture ideas, oriental mysticism – these mixed with the layers of past ancient civilisations to create the elusive product now packaged as the Ibiza Spirit.
But despite the many cultures which passed through in following centuries, the Phoenicians, with their goddess Tanit, still seem to offer Ibiza a much clung-to, mythical foundation. In the north, the island’s ‘spiritual’ circles offer their treatments and ceremonies on the premise that Tanit was a goddess of healing, and that the sick and dying were brought by boat from distant lands to be cured, or laid to rest, on Tanit’s red soil. Meanwhile, down in the backstreets of the capital city it is perfectly normal to stumble upon a local, family-run Tanitmechanics, decades of trade under its belt. The goddess’s image is ubiquitous – despite local media recently speculating that the Tanit bust reproduced on countless laminated bar menus and postcards across the island is actually that of a different goddess, the Greek Demeter.
But the most telling observation of Tanit’s place in modern-day Ibiza can be found on the southerly road connecting the capital city to San Jose. Here, a giant billboard sign advertises a well-known, trendy beach club using as its logo a digitalised, ‘stencil’ version of Tanit’s face. The icon is immediately recognisable, but a graphic designer has tweaked the goddess’s usually neutral, soft mouth into nothing less than a snarl. ‘Come and get me’, she spits, and I always drive on wondering what they did to Tanit to make her snarl like that. But perhaps the answer is simple. They decided Tanit was a sexy extrovert and hedonist, and made her the face of a new sun-worshipping industry called mass tourism. And that, I suppose, is how Tanit accidentally became a sun goddess.
Moon phase: waxing. After an uphill walk the group arrives at the cal oven, a stone structure traditionally used to cook limestone for plastering houses their brilliant white. Out of a doorway he emerges, a hulking, giant-like creature, flames streaming from his mouth, eyes and fingertips. He beckons the group close, seemingly interested in the clay balls clasped in people’s hands. When these clay-encased wishes are presented to the fire being, he dances, whirls and twirls – as though bestowing the buried wishes with the force and vigour to sprout shoots, to burst through their clay casing, to manifest.
I had done it – I had moved to Ibiza, with my bicycle, books and sewing machine. That summer I lived inland, in a cramped van next to a giant prickly pear cactus. After previous summers gloriously bathing in the island heat like a lizard, this one felt different. I shied away from the beaches and ocean at midday – stayed inland, seeking shade. My new urge to escape what felt like the aggressive rays of the sun led me to discover two refuges – both as deeply nestled in the island’s interior as you could ever get. An emerald green, freshwater pool beside a whitewashed well, and the shady, tranquil banks of an empty river.
I didn’t quite understand why at the time, but that summer my rebellion against the summer sun-worshipping culture had brought me to the banks of a dead river, one which had once flowed from the high northwest to its mouth in the east, at the town of Santa Eularia. Several decades ago, the Riu de Santa Eularia flowed abundantly. But little by little it had petered out, so that now it was identifiable only as a meandering, hollowed-out scar in the landscape, little streams occasionally forming here and there after heavy winter rains.
The death of the Balearic Islands’ only river was the direct result of a year-on-year depletion of Ibiza’s underground aquifers, the subterranean vaults of fresh water feeding the island’s wells, and therefore vegetation, for many centuries. Each year these aquifers were increasingly drained by a hotel and tourism industry that was steadily gaining momentum, and it was getting serious. No-one really noticed when the river died. But then they began talking about a Water Crisis, and murmuring that the island was running out of water. And then people noticed, and they started getting scared.
So here I was beneath the pine trees, beside an empty inland river – meanwhile, on the island’s outer fringes, something else was happening. Endless hypnotic beats merging into one, a thousand faces turning towards the sun, following the lure of something – the sensual bliss of warmed, naked skin, the promise of oneness with… something – something greater. Yes, with the sun – always, eternally, with the sun.
Moon phase: full. Steep steps descend into the cave. Down here, candlelight fills the nooks and crannies, and there is a shrine decorated with dried herbs, flowers and seed pods, painted with the phases of the moon in silver and indigo blue. The guardian of the cave has a face caked in earth and is draped in animal fur. When the people are seated, she gestures for them to bring forward their clay-encased wishes; in the silence of the cave they craft them into small dolls using twine, twigs and sheep’s wool. The dolls which began as wishes are placed around the altar, in the belly of the earth.
In the north east of the island, a path leads from the bay of Cala San Vicente up into surrounding hills. Millennia ago, they would have arrived here by boat from other lands, such as the neighbouring island of Mallorca, where 70 years ago Robert Graves sat at his writing desk in Deia, rolling between his fingertips various Phoenician amulets and deities, searching for the words for TheWhite Goddess. Up the path into the forested hills they would..
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