Lucian Hotoiu & Gabriel Saplonþai – Costumes of Viflaim
“Gabriel and I have decided to do this project about the Viflaim performers in Viºeu de Sus and their costumes when Gabriel described to me the figures that 20 years ago had seemed to him huge and frightening, clad in their weird costumes and wearing masks made of sheep wool. He also told me how much noise they would make and how terribly scared he would be of them.
We were especially interested in these characters’ clothing and in order to better render their details we shot them in static, photo-like postures. As artistic creations, the costumes impress through their grotesque, the creativity deployed in their making and the diversity of the materials used. Our intention was not to depict the ritual aspects, which belong more to the context that generates them, but the aspects that describe the costumes’ intrinsic expressiveness, the adornment and colour elements.
The costume-masks are of heathen origin. However, they have acquired new meanings over time, and they have lost all lay remnants. They bring a fresh note to the show, they cheer up and they entertain the audience by the diverse dancing styles and by the grotesque of the mask itself. The name of the characters („draci”, „moºi”, „jizi”) and the fact that they represent good and evil spirits go beyond the festive nature of Christmas the way we know it. This has do to with the local specific tradition. The advent of the Viflaim in Maramureº at the end of the 18th century is owed to the Saxon community, following the model of a similar German custom. The mythology of the Maramureº region still maintains a Germanic essence as far as spirituality is concerned. Some of the epic themes and popular culture components can be traced back to the old Germanic legends. The local Romanian elements originate from the physical features of the area – in this case, the forests and their proximity to the habitat. The passage between these two worlds is unhindered. Hence their interweaving and the extension of the mythos from the forest to the inhabited area, which according to the collective imagination favours the emergence of evil spirits.
We went to Viºeu on Thursday, after Christmas. We began by asking the locals if they knew of any people in the neighbourhood who might have such costumes, then asked for their addresses. We managed to find some of them easily while we had to wait for some others or look for them at the town’s pub. A week before, on Christmas Eve, when the Viflaim had been performed, it had rained and the people had hung their huge fur clothes to dry. Now that it got colder they froze and it became difficult to put them on. Somebody even had to go and search for his costume in the attic because he hadn’t attended any of the shows this year. We took photos of them outside and inside their houses depending on what inspired us while we were there.
We were told that the Viflaim illustrates the myth of Jesus Christ’s birth. Years ago it would take place on an improvised stage built from wooden boards in the village but nowadays the show is performed into the yards of the well-off peasants, into the churches’ courtyard and in the town’s streets. The Viflaim moves along in a procession that occupies the middle of the street. Here and there some of the players slide out of the rows and perform all sorts of feats and stunts like climbing an electricity pole.
The costumes may be especially manufactured for this performance. It is not unusual to recycle old traditional sheep coats („cojoace”) by reversing them and turning them into show garments. Another means of creating a costume is to use worn down clothes or put together various clothing items damaged on purpose to which a series of accessories can be added: little balls of hemp wool, bells or cow bells. Such costumes have been recently covered with cuddly toys, or toys made of other materials, all of them worn-looking and attached in a more or less chaotic manner depending on the owner’s creativity. The characters wearing such doll or toy costumes are called the jizi.
The Viflaim characters appear in all the mask shows that take place in Maramureș on the occasion of the winter holidays, including the popular theatre/performances, such as the goat or bear dance. According to the Bible religious tales, for fear of being deprived of his title when Jesus was born, Herod ordered the killing of all babies under 2 years old. As characters of the Viflaim, the draci are the ones chasing away the good spirits surrounding the holy baby in order for the murder to be committed. On the other hand, the moși are the ones protecting the baby. The moși are rendered by human faces, while the draci appear with demonic masks. In terms of accessories the draci have whips, bells, horns they blow to make sound signals, bludgeons, etc. which they use to seemingly frighten the audience and to create a funny and merry atmosphere. They may also be wearing a special kind of make up, their face being painted with ash and tar. These costume-masks disguise the whole body of the persons wearing them and remove any hint of their personality.
We enjoyed interacting with the people behind the masks. Their desire to tell their story, both the Viflaim related story, and their personal story, helped us develop a better communication that we would like to be able to maintain throughout all our photographic projects.