Story by Julienne du Toit
Photographs by Chris Marais
At the end of a wooded road straight out of Hansel and Gretel lies a place of sequins, feathers and sparkling masks, where it’s Mardi Gras nearly every day.
The gateway that leads to this odd enchanted kingdom in the evergreen forests outside Plettenberg Bay is difficult to find at first, even though it is on the N2. There is a tiny sign mentioning masks, but the bigger sign draws attention to a Hot Chocolate Café.
So you turn in, and navigate a fairytale road through trees leading to two interesting buildings signposted with wrought iron masks that immediately make you feel as if you’ve dropped in on the set of a Tim Burton steampunk fantasy.
Just to complete the otherworldly experience, two wolves of the magical wood (German Shepherd Dogs named Colada and Rupert) come to sniff you over.
Then you are free to investigate the very unusual combination of chocolate and Venetian masks showcased in the Hot Chocolate Café. One or more of the family’s Harley-Davidson motorbikes might be parked nearby.
A Special Family Business
La Carla Mask Atelier must surely rate as one of this country’s more unlikely rurally-based entrepreneurial family businesses.
Inside the Engelbrechts’ mask workshop, there is a sense of carnival preparations. It’s a space that somehow combines the preschool joys of working with colourful paints, scissors, beads and glues with a festival atmosphere of nodding ostrich plumes in every colour, poking out of great big beer beakers.
There are trays of shiny beads and sequins, rolls of ribbons and brocades, walls and tables lined with colour and worksheets, swathes of velvet, taffeta, lace and sumptuous fabrics.
This artisanal workshop had quite prosaic origins. The Engelbrechts, originally of Wierda Park in Pretoria, used to have a family firm that produced moulds (ceiling roses, cornices and finials) for the construction trade.
That Trip to Venice
But their lives changed after a holiday to Venice, Italy, in 2005.
“Charnelle and I were absolutely entranced by the beauty of the Venetian Festival masks when we saw them for the first time. The masks were very expensive, but gorgeous, made of light porcelain and leather, decorated with sequins, gold leaf, gems and feathers. “
When she came home, Carla decided on a masquerade theme for her next birthday party. Carla’s husband Neels helped with the papier mache moulds, she decorated them.
“Our guests absolutely loved them, and in fact, one of them placed an order for masks to be sent to Portugal. Then another business client ordered 700 masks for a huge function at Sun City.
“We decided to put images of the masks on a website, and orders started to come in,” said Carla.
Moving to the Country
“Eventually we realised we didn’t have to be in Pretoria any more, and we started looking for property in our favourite part of the country – the Garden Route.”
The ‘raw’ papier mache masks are made by upliftment projects in Plettenberg Bay’s townships, usually several dozen or hundreds at a time.
Carla runs the admin, and she and daughter Charnelle trim, paint and decorate the masks.
“We custom-design all our masks according to the clients’ theme, style, colour-preferences and budget.”
When they have massive orders or a tight deadline, they sometimes call in their dream-team of local artists who leap at the chance to come over and help create fantasy.
The Orders Roll In
While we were there, they were preparing orders for the Karroo Theatrical Hotel in Steytlerville, the Victoria Falls Hotel’s New Year’s Party and Gary Player’s Black Knight year-end function at Sun City.
In nearly a decade, they have created 26 000 masks, some for weddings, other for launches or corporate events, fancy dress parties, and even wall and pillar decorations for functions like Sexpo.
Neels helps with special moulds like bodices or special pieces, and runs the Hot Chocolate Café that their other daughter Cathrine (now overseas) started.
A hand-written sign in his Belgian chocolate workshop puts everything in perspective: “A Day without Chocolate is a Disaster”.
Masks Masks Masks
Carla and Charnelle have become is fascinated by the history of masks and are happy to give visitors an insight into their historical importance.
Masks became a very important part of Venetian life in the 14th Century, allowing people to vote anonymously, to do business across class, race and gender lines, and of course, for secret alliances and dalliances.
Napoleonic austerity put an end to it. In fact, the Carnival of Venice, held in February every year, was stopped for centuries, only starting again in 1979.
Wearing festival masks in South Africa is still quite a new experience. “It hasn’t really been part of the culture. As a result, most South Africans prefer half masks that just cover the eyes and nose. But in Europe they’ve been using masks for centuries. So many of the ones we export are full masks.”
Venice, naturally, has become part of their annual travel schedule, and of course, they always make their own masks. This year, they’re going steampunk…
Masks in History
- Masks and attendant disguises have a far longer history than the iconic Venetian masks. They have evolved in parallel to human culture, used all over the world by shamans, for important rites of passage, scaring enemies, and for amusement.
- At great balls and festivals, masks have always been a great way to create accidental or purposeful misunderstandings.
- There are many famous ‘archetypal’ masks that depicted characters in the Italian theatrical tradition of Commedia dell’ Arte – for example Pierrot, Columbine, Pantalone and Arlecchino. But one of the most famous, with a long-beak nose like a marabou stork, had its origins in sickness. The nose was stuffed with herbs, the eye spaces glittered with crystal or glass, and a whole outfit designed to protect the wearer (a doctor) from the plague. It was called Medico della Peste. This was probably one of the first medical masks to be worn.
- Masks and disguises continue to be popular this day at annual festivals like Mardi Gras, the Carnival of Venice, Burning Man and its local equivalent, AfrikaBurn.
- Humans have always needed masks, it seems. These days, our masks are often digital – our Facebook pages and Twitter handles, our gaming avatars.
- For more information, visit LaCarlaMasks.co.za, email email@example.com or call 082 499 6295.