Image of Mask
Image of Mask

politics and the mask

Masks are an effective disguise. This can be desirable when we are behaving in an embarrassing fashion or depicting a story that might have risky association for us. We see the first benefit in parties around the world – the mask allows the wearer to shed inhibitions. We see the second benefit where masked depictions of political or sensitive events could be received unfavorably by a powerful elite.

Masks can allow very pointed political and social satire, transforming the most powerful people and social mores into objects of fun.

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     Gule Wankulu dance Malawi 2007; photograph by Gary Morgan

The Commedia dell’Arte of the Italian Renaissance was populated by masked performers, who satirized the behavior of citizens and politicians of the day. Under the masks, the actors had some measure of security to depict what they would never speak of openly in public. To wear the mask meant to assume an insolence inappropriate – and outright dangerous – under the rule of despotic Princes and Doges. This evolved in the 18th century to the adoption of masks, notably the Bauta style, as tools of democracy. Citizens of Venice were required to wear this mask when voting publicly. The open jaw line did not obstruct the voice and allowed the wearer to eat and drink – the perfect design.

In gule wamkulu of East Africa, many masked characters depict political events and politicians. During the rule of preceding autocratic regimes of the 1960s-1990s, public criticism of the political hegemony could result in severe punishment. Under the guise of the mask, and depiction of all sorts of characters, political satire could be advanced with greater safety. Colonial powers have not been immune. Masked characters in Africa and Mexico can integrate European features and mannerisms, sometimes by way of respect, but perhaps more often to achieve a visual mockery.

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This use of masked characters to satirize current events continues to the present day, even in societies where free speech and a free press are now sacrosanct. The Basel (Switzerland) Fasnacht, a version of a Lenten carnival, is heavily populated by masked characters and themes that lampoon current events, politicians and prominent people. At the time of its origins in the 16th century, masking for anonymous political critique would have been sensible self-protection.

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     Guy Fawke masks at a protest, Los Angeles 2008;
     photograph from Wikimedia Commons

The popular media has many depictions of masks and power, and some have strong political overtones. In the final scenes of the futuristic science fiction film V for Vendetta (2005 Warner Brothers; based on the Quality Comics series by Alan Moore and David Lloyd), the dominant authoritarian power of the state is finally challenged by the massed array of identically masked citizens. In donning the mask of the anarchist, they have assumed communal power – evidenced by their identical masks - that can bring down a faceless fascist regime.

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Carnivals around the world now have masked depictions of prominent and powerful people, and rarely are those depictions flattering. While the protective need for masking has waned, the fun in masking continues.


Have you ever expressed dangerous views from a position of anonymity?

What was the best satirical mask you have seen?

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