Definition Of What a Mask Is-
Masks generally are worn with a costume, often so complete that it entirely
The morphological elements of the mask are with few exceptions derived from natural forms. Masks with human features are classified as anthropomorphic and those with animal characteristics as theriomorphic. In some instances, the mask form is a replication of natural features or closely follows the lineaments of reality, and in other instances it is an abstraction. Masks usually represent supernatural beings, ancestors, and fanciful or imagined figures and can also be portraits. The localization of a particular spirit in a specific mask must be considered a highly significant reason for its existence.
The change in identity of the wearer for that of the mask is vital, for if the spirit represented does not reside in the image of the mask, the ritual petitions, supplications, and offerings made to it would be ineffectual and meaningless. The mask, therefore, most often functions as a means of contact with various spirit powers, thereby protecting against the unknown forces of the universe by prevailing upon their potential beneficence in all matters relative to life.
The Making Of Masks
This power is considered a volatile, active force that is surrounded by various taboos and restrictions for the protection of those handling it. Certain prescribed rituals frequently have to be followed in the process of the mask’s creation. A spirit power is also often believed to inhabit the artist’s tools so that even these have to be handled in a prescribed manner. As the form of the mask develops it is usually believed to acquire power increasingly in its own right, and again various procedures are prescribed to protect the craftsman and to ensure the potency of the object.
If all the conventions have been adhered to, the completed mask, when worn or displayed, is regarded as an object suffused with great supernatural or spirit power. In some cultures it isbelieved that because of the close association between the mask maker and the spirit of the mask, the artist absorbs some of its magic power. A few West African tribal groups in Mali believe, in fact, that the creators of masks are even potentially capable of using the object’s supernatural powers to cause harm to others.
Aesthetically, the mask maker has usually been restricted in the forms he can use since masks generally have a traditional imagery with formal conventions. If they are not followed, the artist can bring upon himself the severe censure of his social group and the displeasure or even wrath of the spirit power inherent in the mask. This requirement for accuracy, however, does not restrict artistic expressiveness.
The mask maker can and does give his own creative interpretation to the traditionally prescribed general forms, attributes, and devices. The artist, in fact, is usually sought out as a maker of masks because of his known ability to give a vitally expressive or an aesthetically pleasing presentation of the required image.
The Wearing Of Masks
The real drama and power of its form is the important contribution of the wearer. When he is attired in the mask, there is a loss of his previous identity and the assuming of a new one. Upon donning the mask, the wearer sometimes undergoes a psychic change and as in a trance assumes the spirit character depicted by the mask.
Usually, however, the wearer skillfully becomes a “partner” of the character he is impersonating, giving to the mask not only an important spark of vitality by the light flashing from his own eyes but also bringing it alive by his movements and poses. But it would seem that the wearer often becomes psychologically completely attached to the character he is helping to create. He loses his own identity and becomes like an automaton, without his own will, which has become subservient to that of the personage of the mask. It appears, however, that at all times there remains some important, even if sub rosa, association between the mask and its wearer.
Psychologically the spectators become associated with the past through the
In some cases, the spirit or supernatural being depicted is viewed with rejoicing and almost a familiarity, which leads to gaiety that has a cathartic aspect. Even so, the mask has a spirit content that is respected and revered, even if it is not showing a being with malignant potential. All of these forms have spirit and magical qualities and are thus esteemed as agents for the accomplishing of superhuman acts.
Some masks, however, do represent malignant, evil, or potentially harmful spirits. These are often used to keep a required balance of power or a traditional social and political relationship of inherited positions within a culture. The characters depicted are also prescribed by tradition and enact roles to achieve the desired ends. The drama involving these masks is often associated with secret societies, especially in Africa, where the greatest range of mask forms and functions can be observed. These forms are often used in very restricted performances, where only select persons can view them. This is also true in other areas where masks are used, such as in Oceania, the Americas, and even in some of the folk mask rites still performed in Europe.
Meaning Of Different Masks
Masks, therefore, that have a closely comparable appearance in several unrelated groups in quite different parts of the world often have totally dissimilar meanings and functions. It is thus practically impossible to determine either the meaning or use of a mask by its appearance alone. For example, some masks in Africa, as well as in Oceania and East Asia, have such a grotesque or frightening appearance as to lead one to suspect that they represent evil spirits with an intent to terrorize the spectators; actually they may have the opposite character and function.
The significance of masks can be determined only by reference to accounts or personal observations of the masks in the setting of their own culture.
The aesthetic effects of masks, on the other hand, since they derive from the forms and their disposition within the design, can readily be evaluated as art objects. But this evaluation is based on elements very different from those appraised within the mask’s own culture. This is partly because the total artistic qualities of a mask derive both from its exterior forms and from its meaning and function within its cultural context.
There exist, however, in all cultures criteria for determining the quality of objects as art. These criteria differ from one culture to another, and they may be known only from investigations carried out within the varying cultures.
The collecting of masks has largely been of recent origin. Not until the late 19th and early 20th century were they seriously appreciated as art objects or studied as cultural artifacts. Most masks have been obtained through archaeological excavations or in field expeditions, that is, in their place of origin.
The Functions And Forms Of Masks
Social And Religious Uses Of Masks In Other Cultures
Masks have served an important role as a means of discipline and have been used to admonish women, children, and criminals. Common in China, Africa, Oceania, and North America, admonitory masks usually completely cover the features of the wearer. It is believed among some of the African Negro tribes that the first mask was an admonitory one. A child, repeatedly told not to, persisted in following its mother to fetch water. To frighten and discipline the child, the mother painted a hideous face on the bottom of her water gourd.
Others say the mask was invented by a secret African society to escape recognition while punishing marauders. In New Britain, members of a secret terroristic society called the Dukduk appear in monstrous five-foot masks to police, to judge, and to execute offenders. Aggressive supernatural spirits of an almost demonic nature are represented by these masks, which are constructed from a variety of materials, usually including tapa, or bark cloth, and the pith of certain reeds. These materials are painted in brilliant colours, with brick red and acid green predominating.
In many cultures throughout the world, a judge wears a mask to protect him from future recriminations. In this instance, the mask represents a traditionally sanctioned spirit from the past who assumes responsibility for the decision levied on the culprit.
Rituals, often nocturnal, by members of secret societies wearing ancestor masks are reminders of the ancient sanction of their conduct. In many cultures, these masked ceremonials are intended to prevent miscreant acts and to maintain the circumscribed activities of the tribe. Along the Guinea coast of West Africa, for instance, many highly realistic masks represent ancestors who enjoyed specific cultural roles; the masks symbolize sanction and control when donned by the wearer.
Among some of the Dan and Ngere tribes of Liberia and Ivory Coast, ancestor masks with generic features act as intermediaries for the transmission of petitions or offerings of respect to the gods. These traditional ancestral emissaries exert by their spirit power a social control for the community.
Particularly among Oceanic peoples, American Indians, and Negro tribes of Africa, certain times of the year are set aside to honour spirits or ancestors. Among nonliterate peoples who cannot record their own histories, masked rituals act as an important link between past and present, giving a sense of historic continuity that strengthens their social bond. On these occasions, masks usually recognizable as dead chieftains, relatives, friends, or even foes are worn or exhibited. Gifts are made to the spirits incarnated in the masks, while in other instances dancers wearing stylized mourning masks perform the prescribed ceremony.
In western Melanesia, the ancestral ceremonial mask occurs in a great variety of forms and materials. The Sepik River area in north central New Guinea is the source of an extremely richarray of these mask forms mostly carved in wood, ranging from small faces to large fantastic forms with a variety of appendages affixed to the wood, including shell, fiber, animal skins, seed, flowers, and feathers. These masks are highly polychromed with earth colours of red and yellow, lime white, and charcoal black. They often represent supernatural spirits as well as ancestors and therefore have both a religious and a social significance.
Members of secret societies usually conduct the rituals of initiation, when a young man is instructed in his future role as an adult and is acquainted with the rules controlling the social stability of the tribe. Totem and spiritualistic masks are donned by the elders at these ceremonies. Sometimes the masks used are reserved only for initiations. Among the most impressive of the initiation masks are the exquisitely carved human faces of west coast African Negro tribes.
In western and central Congo (Kinshasa), in Africa, large, colourful helmetlike masks are used as a masquerading device when the youth emerges from the initiation area and is introduced to the villagers as an adult of the tribe. After a lengthy ordeal of teaching and initiation rites, for instance, a youth of the Pende tribe appears in a distinctive colourful mask indicative of his new role as an adult. The mask is later cast aside and replaced by a small ivory duplicate, worn as a charm against misfortune and as a symbol of his manhood.
Believing everything in nature to possess a spirit, man found authority for himself and his family by identifying with a specific nonhuman spirit. He adopted an object of nature; then he mythologically traced his ancestry back to the chosen object; he preempted the animal as the emblem of himself and his clan. This is the practice of totem, which consolidates family pride and distinguishes social lines. Masks are made to house the totem spirit. The totem ancestor is believed actually to materialize in its mask; thus masks are of the utmost importance in securing protection and bringing comfort to the totem clan.
The Papuans of New Guinea build mammoth masks called hevehe, attaining 20 feet in height. They are constructed of a palm wood armature covered in bark cloth; geometric designs are stitched on with painted cane strips. These fantastic man–animal masks are given a frightening aspect. When they emerge from the men’s secret clubhouse, they serve to protect the members of the clan.
The so-called “totem” pole of the Alaskan and British Columbian Indian fulfills the same function. The African totem mask is often carved from ebony or other hard woods, designed with graceful lines and showing a highly polished surface. Animal masks, their features elongated and beautifully formalized, are common in western Africa. Dried grass, woven palm fibers, coconuts, and shells, as well as wood are employed in the masks of New Guinea, New Ireland, and New Caledonia. Represented are fanciful birds, fishes, and animals with distorted or exaggerated features.
The high priest and medicine man, or the shaman, frequently had his own very powerful totem, in whose mask he could exorcise evil spirits, punish enemies, locate game or fish, predict the weather, and, most importantly, cure disease.
The Northwest Coast Indians of North America in particular devised mechanical masks with movable parts to reveal a second face—generally a human image. Believing that the human spirit could take animal form and vice versa, the makers of these masks fused man and bird or man and animal into one mask. Some of these articulating masks acted out entire legends as their parts moved.
Funerary And Commemorative Uses Of Masks
The mummies of Inca royalty wore golden masks. The mummies of lesser personages often had masks that were made of wood or clay. Some of these ancient Andean masks had movable parts, such as the metallic death mask with movable ears that was found in the Moon Pyramid at Moche, Peru. The ancient Mexicans made burial masks that seem to be generic representations rather than portraits of individuals.
In ancient Roman burials, a mask resembling the deceased was often place over his face or was worn by an actor hired to accompany the funerary cortege to the burial site. In patrician families these masks or imagines were sometimes preserved as ancestor portraits and were displayed on ceremonial occasions. Such masks were usually modeled over the features of the dead and cast in wax. This technique was revived in the making of effigy masks for the royalty and nobility of Europe from the late Middle Ages through the 18th century.
Painted and with human hair, these masks were attached to a dummy dressed in state regalia and were used for display, processionals, or commemorative ceremonials. From the 17th century to the 20th, death masks of famous persons became widespread among European peoples. With wax or liquid plaster of paris, a negative cast of the human face could be produced that in turn acted as a mold for the positive image, frequently cast in bronze. In the 19th century, life masks made in the same manner became popular.
Another type of life mask had been produced in the Fayyum region of Egypt during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. These were realistic portraits painted in encaustic on wood during a person’s lifetime; when the person died, they were attached directly to the facial area on the mummy shroud.
The skull mask is another form usually associated with funerary rites. The skull masks of the Aztecs, like their wooden masks, were inlaid with mosaics of turquoise and lignite, and the eye sockets were filled with pyrites. Holes were customarily drilled in the back so the mask might be hung or possibly worn. In Melanesia, the skull of the deceased is often modeled over with clay, or resin and wax, and then elaborately painted with designs that had been used ceremonially by the deceased during his own lifetime.
Masks For Use In Therapy
Masks for protection from disease include the measle masks worn by Chinese children and the cholera masks worn during epidemics by the Chinese and Burmese. The disease mask is most developed among the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), where 19 distinct rakasa, or disease devil masks, have been devised. These masks are of ferocious aspect, fanged, and with startling eyes. Gaudily coloured and sometimes having articulating jaws, they present a dragon-like appearance.
Masks have long been used in military connections. A war mask will have a malevolent expression or hideously fantastic features to instill fear in the enemy. The ancient Greeks and Romans used battle shields with grotesque masks or attached terrifying masks to their armour, as did the Chinese warrior. Grimacing menpo, or mask helmets, were used by Japanese samurai.
Many sports require the use of masks. Some of these are merely functional, protective devices such as the masks worn by fencers, baseball catchers, or even skiers. To protect their faces in sports events and tournaments of arms, horsemen of the Roman army attached highly decorative and symbolic masks to their helmets.
Perhaps the earliest use of masks was in connection with hunting. Disguise masks were seemingly used in the early Stone Age in stalking prey and later to house the slain animal’s spirit in the hope of placating it. The traditional animal masks worn by the Altaic and Tungusic shamans in Siberia are strictly close to such prehistoric examples as the image of the so-called sorcerer in the Cave of Les Trois Frères in Ariège, France.
Since agricultural societies first appeared in prehistory, the mask has been widely used for fertility rituals. The Iroquois, for instance, used corn husk masks at harvest rituals to give thanks for and to achieve future abundance of crops. Perhaps the most renowned of the masked fertility rites held by American Indians are those still performed by the Hopi and Zuni Indians of the Southwest U.S. Together with masked dancers representing clouds, rain spirits, stars, Earth Mother, sky god, and others, the shaman takes part in elaborate ceremonies designed to assure crop fertility.
Spirits called kachinas, who first brought rain to the Pueblo tribes, are said to have left their masks behind when sent to dwell in the bottom of a desert lake. Their return to help bring the rain is incarnated by the masked dancer. Cylindrical masks, covering the entire head and resting on the shoulders, are of a primal type. They are made of leather and humanized by the addition of hair and a variety of adjuncts. Eyes are represented by incisions or by buckskin balls filled with deer hair and affixed to the mask. The nose is often of rolled buckskin or corncob.
Frequently the mask has a projecting wooden cylinder for a bill or a gourd stem cut with teeth for a snout. Horns are attached to some masks. Many colours are used in their painting; plumes and beads are attached, and the sex of the mask is distinguished by its shape: round head indicates male and square indicates female. In the western Sudan area of Africa many tribes have masked fertility ceremonials. The segoni-kun masks that are fashioned by the Bambara tribes in Mali are aesthetically among the most interesting.
Antelopes, characterized by their elegant simplicity, are carved in wood and affixed to woven fiber caps that are hung with raffia and cover the wearer. The antelope is believed to have introduced agriculture, and so when crops are sown, members of Tji-wara society cavort in the fields in pairs to symbolize fertility and abundance.
Throughout contemporary Europe and Latin America, masks are associated with folk festivals, especially those generated by seasonal changes or marking the beginning and end of the year. Among the most famous of the folk masks are the masks worn to symbolize the driving away of winter in parts of Austria and Switzerland. In Mexico and Guatemala, annual folk festivals employ masks for storytelling and caricature, such as for the Dance of the Old Men and the Dance of the Moors and the Christians. The Eskimo make masks with comic or satiric features that are worn at festivals of merrymaking, as do the Ibos of Nigeria.
Theatrical Uses Of Masks
The mask as a device for theatre first emerged in Western civilization from the religious practices of ancient Greece. In the worship of Dionysus, god of fecundity and the harvest, the communicants’ attempt to impersonate the deity by donning goatskins and by imbibing wine eventually developed into the sophistication of masking. When a literature of worship appeared, a disguise, which consisted of a white linen mask hung over the face (a device supposedly initiated by Thespis, a 6th-century-BC poet who is credited with originating tragedy), enabled the leaders of the ceremony to make the god manifest. Thus symbolically identified, the communicant was inspired to speak in the first person, thereby giving birth to the art of drama.
In Greece the progress from ritual to ritual-drama was continued in highly formalized theatrical representations. Masks used in these productions became elaborate headpieces made of leather or painted canvas and depicted an extensive variety of personalities, ages, ranks, and occupations. Heavily coiffured and of a size to enlarge the actor’s presence, the Greek mask seems to have been designed to throw the voice by means of a built-in megaphone device and, by exaggeration of the features, to make clear at a distance the precise nature of the character.
Moreover, their use made it possible for the Greek actors—who were limited by convention to three speakers for each tragedy—to impersonate a number of different characters during the play simply by changing masks and costumes. Details from frescoes, mosaics, vase paintings, and fragments of stone sculpture that have survived to the present day provide most of what is known of the appearance of these ancient theatrical masks. The tendency of the early Greek and Roman artists to idealize their subjects throws doubt, however, upon the accuracy of these reproductions. In fact, some authorities maintain that the masks of the ancient theatre were crude affairs with little aesthetic appeal.
In the Middle Ages, masks were used in the mystery plays of the 12th to the 16th century. In plays dramatizing portions of the Old and New Testaments, grotesques of all sorts, such as devils, demons, dragons, and personifications of the seven deadly sins, were brought to stage life by the use of masks. Constructed of papier-mâché, the masks of the mystery plays were evidently marvels of ingenuity and craftsmanship, being made to articulate and to belch fire and smoke from hidden contrivances. But again, no reliable pictorial record has survived.
Masks used in connection with present-day carnivals and Mardi Gras and those of folk demons and characters still used by central European peasants, such as the Perchten masks of Alpine Austria, are most likely the inheritors of the tradition of medieval masks.
The 15th-century Renaissance in Italy witnessed the rise of a theatrical phenomenon that spread rapidly to France, to Germany, and to England, where it maintained its popularity into the 18th century. Comedies improvised from scenarios based upon the domestic dramas of the ancient Roman comic playwrights Plautus (254?–184 BC) and Terence (186/185–159 BC) and upon situations drawn from anonymous ancient Roman mimes flourished under the title of commedia dell’arte.
Adopting the Roman stock figures and situations to their own usage’s, the players of the commedia were usually masked. Sometimes the masking was grotesque and fanciful, but generally a heavy leather mask, full or half face, disguised the commedia player. Excellent pictorial records of both commedia costumes and masks exist; some sketches show the characters of Arlecchino and Colombina wearing black masks covering merely the eyes, from which the later masquerade mask is certainly a development.
Except for vestiges of the commedia in the form of puppet and marionette shows, the drama of masks all but disappeared in Western theatre during the 18th, 19th, and first half of the 20th centuries. In modern revivals of ancient Greek plays, masks have occasionally been employed, and such highly symbolic plays as Die versunkene Glocke (The Sunken Bell; 1897) by the German Gerhart Hauptmann (1862–1946) and dramatizations of Alice in Wonderland have required masks for the performers of grotesque or animal figures.
The Irish poet-playwright W.B. Yeats (1865–1939) revived the convention in his Dreaming of the Bones and in other plays patterned upon the Japanese No drama. In 1926 theatre goers in the United States witnessed a memorable use of masks in The Great God Brown by the American dramatist Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953), wherein actors wore masks of their own faces to indicate changes in the internal and external lives of their characters. Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943), a German artist associated with the Bauhaus, became interested in the late 1920s and ’30s in semantic phenomenology as applied to the design of masks for theatrical productions.
Modern art movements are often reflected in the design of contemporary theatrical masks. The stylistic concepts of Cubism and Surrealism, for example, are apparent in the masks executed for a 1957 production of La favola del figlio cambiato (The Fable of the Transformed Son) by the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936). A well-known mid-century play using masks was Les Nègres (1958; The Blacks, 1960) by the French writer Jean Genet. The mask, however, has unquestionably lost its importance as a theatrical convention in the 20th century, and its appearance in modern plays is unusual.
In many ways akin to Greek drama in origin and theme, the No drama of Japan has remained a significant part of national life since its beginnings in the 14th century. No masks, of which there are about 125 named varieties, are rigidly traditional and are classified into five general types: old persons (male and female), gods, goddesses, devils, and goblins. The material of the No mask is wood with a coating of plaster, which is lacquered and gilded. Colours are traditional.
White is used to characterize a corrupt ruler; red signifies a righteous man; a black mask is worn by the villain, who epitomizes violence and brutality. No masks are highly stylized and generally characterized. They are exquisitely carved by highly respected artists known as tenka-ichi, “the first under heaven.” Shades of feeling are portrayed with beautifully sublimated realism. When the masks are subtly moved by the player’s hand or body motion, their expression appears to change.
In Tibet, sacred dramas are performed by masked lay actors. A play for exorcising demons called the “Dance of the Red Tiger Devil” is performed at fixed seasons of the year exclusively by the priests or lamas wearing awe-inspiring masks of deities and demons. Masks employed in this mystery play are made of papier-mâché, cloth, and occasionally gilt copper. In the Indian state of Sikkim and in Bhutan, where wood is abundant and the damp climate is destructive to paper, they are carved of durable wood. All masks of the Himalayan peoples are fantastically painted and are usually provided with wigs of yak tail in various colours. Formally they often emphasize the hideous.
Masks, usually made of papier-mâché, are employed in the religious or admonitory drama of China; but for the greater part the actors in popular or secular drama make up their faces with cosmetics and paint to resemble masks, as do the Kabuki actors in Japan. The makeup mask both identifies the particular character and conveys his personality. The highly didactic sacred drama of China is performed with the actors wearing fanciful and grotesque masks. Akin to this “morality” drama are the congratulatory playlets, pageants, processions, and dances of China. Masks employed in these ceremonies are highly ornamented, with jeweled and elaborately filigreed headgears.
In the lion and dragon dances of both China and Japan, a stylized mask of the beast is carried on a pole by itinerant players, whose bodies are concealed by a dependent cloth. The mask and cloth are manipulated violently, as if the animal were in pursuit, to the taps of a small drum. The mask’s lower jaw is movable and made to emit a loud continuous clacking by means of a string.
On Java and Bali, wooden masks, tupeng, are used in certain theatrical performances called wayang wong. These dance dramas developed from the shadow puppet plays of the 18th century and are performed not only as amusement but as a safeguard against calamities. The stories are in part derived from ancient Sanskrit literature, especially the Hindu epics, although the Javanese later became Muslims.
The brightly painted masks are made of wood and leather and are often fitted with horsehair and metallic or gilded paper accoutrements. They are ordinarily held in the teeth by means of a strap of leather or rattan that has been fastened across the inside. Occasionally an actor interrupts the unseen narrator, the Dalang, who is speaking the play. The mask is then held in front of the face while the player says his line. The use of theatrical masks in Java is exceptional, since masks, being forbidden under the prohibition of images, are practically unknown in the Islamic world.
In the 20th century, with the breaking down of primitive and folk cultures, the mask has increasingly become a decorative object, although it has long been used in art as an ornamental device. In Haiti, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, and Mexico, masks are produced largely for tourists. The collecting of old masks has been a part of the current interest in so-called primitive and folk arts. Masks also have exerted a decided influence on modern art movements, especially in the first decades of the 20th century, when painters in France and Germany found a source of inspiration in the tribal masks of Africa and western Oceania.