Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Peruvian chukchu masks portraying malaria

Peter de Smet
Nijmegen, Netherlands

Although malaria remains a major health risk in many parts of the world, indigenous forms of art portraying signs of this disease are rarely encountered. An exception is the Peruvian mask on the left, which, in its yellow color, represents jaundice resulting from malaria. In endemic areas, jaundice may occur in 2.6% to 5.3% of patients with falciparum malaria.1 The mosquito on the cheek of this mask portrays how malaria is transmitted.

Masks like this one are worn in the festival of the Virgen del Carmen (Our Lady of Mount Carmel), celebrated between the 15th and 19th of July in the Peruvian town of Paucartambo, found almost 50 km NE of Cusco. During this festival, the Virgin is mainly honored through performances of different dance groups. One of these groups is formed by chukchu dancers. These dancers wear yellow masks, such as those depicted, to represent agricultural workers who have contracted malaria in the jungle and come to Paucartambo to be blessed and cured by Mamacha Carmen. A chukchu group does not only portray patients, but also includes other characters, such as a doctor, nurses, and mosquitos. The dancers pretend to infect the spectators by attacking them with yellow bags. Today, chukchu masks do not always depict malaria, but may also portray signs of other diseases, such as leishmaniasis, yellow fever, AIDS, cancer, or through general skull-like features.

Peruvian chukchu masks. Paper mache, plaster cast, with oil paint (H. 19.5, 20.8 and 20.8 cm). Waldir Barrantes, Paucartambo, Peru.
Early 21st century. Provenance: kay.arte.peru. Photos by author, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Notes and references

  1. Anand, A.C., and P. Puri. Jaundice in malaria. J Gastroenterol Hepatol 2005;20:1322-32.
  2. Cánepa Koch, G. Máscara, transformación e identidad en los Andes, la fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen Paucartambo-Cuzco. Lima: Fondo Editorial de la Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú; 1998: 114.
  3. Gaillard, P. La danse des chukchu: danse, maladie et dévotion dans les Andes sud-péruviennes (département de Cuzco). Ateliers d’anthropologie 2003;25:75-93 sect.43.
  4. Gamero Santos, D.M. Mamacha Carmen photobook (2007-2019). Vols I-V. 2023. Available at: https://www.dilmargamero.com/mamachacarmen.html [accessed Oct 31, 2023]. Vol.I:18,52-53; Vol.III:72.

PETER AGM DE SMET is a retired Dutch drug information pharmacist, clinical pharmacologist, and emeritus professor of pharmaceutical care at the UMC Radboud Nijmegen. He is still active as an ethnomedical and ethnopharmacological researcher.  

Winter 2024



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