Monday, January 23, 2012

Cultures Through the the Masks

      At the top of my stairs stands a large mask from Papua New Guinea called a gable mask. In the jungle region of that country these masks are placed on the front of special buildings (spirit houses) to ward off the likelihood of bad spirits entering. Since I placed the mask there I have not had any bad spirits pass it so I guess it serves the function for which it is designed. This mask has a special memory for me. I bought it soon after I entered the Sepik River area of the country at a small market in one of the towns along the river. It was much too bulky to put into a suitcase, though it was not heavy, so I wrapped it inside a plastic bag and dragged it around with us for a couple of weeks until we got home. At the time, I was not certain it was worth all that effort but I am am quite convinced it was now that I have enjoyed it for quite a few years. I have mentioned the fact that I collect masks in my Third World journeys as artifacts which remind me of the places I have visited and the experiences I have had. They fill the walls of my dining room and kitchen, my foyer and halls and enable me to relive so much of what I have seen and learned. But their real meaning lies in the function they perform in the cultures where they were created.

      In West Africa where the greatest diversity of these creations exist, masks are used for ceremonies of many kinds and their varieties include depictions of human and animal faces as well as other figures which have specific meaning to the makers such as snakes and birds and other representations of spiritual significance. At dance ceremonies in Africa one might well see young masked men who are unidentified appear from the nearby forest, dance their assigned parts and return to where they came from to complete their tribal initiation rites. These dancers hide their identities behind masks so that the dance is the focus rather than the individual performing them.  The spirit worship of West Africans as well as several other peoples around the world is symbolized in these ceremonial objects. They are also fine representations of traditional art often created with great skill and detail. 

       Among the other masks in my collection are depictions of Colonial figures, animals and other subjects carved in Africa or Mexico, another center of mask making. Since I have been to Mexico many times, my masks remind me of the variety of Indian tribes that still carry forth many of the traditions of their history. Quite a few of these masks are palpable representations of old, spirit worshipping cultures influenced by the Conquistadors who imposed Catholicism yet allowed such traditional art and notions to flourish. Similar masks exist in some areas of South America where celebrations like Carnaval motivate mask makers to continue to carve and experiment with their artistry.

      But masks, though they may be influenced greatly by the traditions and values of a particular group, may also be just artistic objects. A few of my masks are simply lovely craftsmanship. One of the first masks I ever bought was carved in the Berber area of Morocco, hardly a major mask-making location. While it is only tangentially related to the culture where it was made, it is definitely a lovely piece of art. In places like India and Nepal, many masks represent gods. Some of these are used ceremonially while others decorate temples and pagodas and walls in homes of the reverent, well-off citizens. And some of the masks I encountered were the product of wonderful serendipity. A passing mention to the captain of a small ship I was on in Borneo resulted in an unplanned stop in a small village on the Mahakam River where I secured a wonderful mask created for the upcoming celebration of an event there somewhat like our New Year's celebration. A brief walk from my modest hotel on the little island of Sumba east of Bali took me to a store which was full of antique, interesting masks created by the tribe that inhabits that area. One of my favorites is a mask of a bearded man I bought in that store for next to nothing. Whatever their use or purpose may have been before I bought them, these wonderful artifacts decorate my home and constantly bring me back to some of the most wonderful places and fascinating experiences I have ever had. The gods and the devils, the dogs and birds, the alligators and tigers all follow me as I walk through  my house. What a sublime byproduct of my travel.

Rangda Dance Mask, Bali, Indonesia

1 comment:

Lorraine said...

Thanks for the blog on masks. They are fascinating as much for what they hide as for what they show. It is always interesting to see parts of your mask collection at your travel lectures.