Image of Mask
Image of Mask

Gender and sexuality

Image of Mask

Masks can act as a bridge between life in this world, and our perception of life in the next, or other parallel, worlds. Many cultures have masked performances where the masked character represents either a figure from the afterlife, or is a connector between the living and the dead. One of the earliest recognized characteristics of our human ancestors was their demonstration of various faith or spiritual systems. This could be expressed through art and funerary objects. Masks can provide a synthesis of art and spirituality.

Masked characters can represent spirits, gods, demons and witches. They can be messengers from another world, a world that may be a place of spirits, of our ancestors, or of our God. Masks can transform the wearer into something more than a human being. . . something more powerful … or sometimes just more entertaining.

Image of Mask
     Mali Dogon masked dancers -traditionally performed
     during religious festivals; photograph by Doris Neilson

For many peoples, our world has been seen as one of spirits as well as tangible beings, and masked characters can be a portal between the two. Where our mortal existence is regarded as clearly demarcated from the afterlife, masked characters can still play important roles in commemoration of religious festivals, by portraying characters that relate to that afterlife or revealing proper behavior to achieve a successful transition to a happy afterlife.

There is astounding diversity of form and function of spiritual masked characters in certain cultures. There are estimated to be more than 400 different kachinas (katcinas), the masked dancers and dolls of Hopi and Pueblo culture of the Southwest United States. Probably more than a thousand gule wamkulu masked characters have been developed in East Africa. In West Africa, numerous cultural groups have refined masks and mask wearing into a vibrant and eclectic art form that is central to the belief systems of the communities. The staged masked performances of East Asia draw upon many spiritual and legendary stories, transforming them into spectacles of entertainment and education. Whatever the cultural context, each character can have its own role and story, and each, its own mask. Where a masked character performs as a dancer, it can have its own dance movements, and its own accompanying music or drum beat.

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     Gule Wamkulu masked ancestral figure, Malawi;
     photograph by Gary Morgan 2007

Ancestor veneration is widespread in many cultures. This is more than just respecting those who have gone before us. Ancestors can be active participants in our lives, influencing our behavior and even the events that impact us. Communication between the living and the dead can be a useful conduit for good relations between the two worlds. Masked entities can bring advice from the ancestors, strongly suggesting how the living should lead their lives. They can represent the actions and achievements of those who are now deceased, as a model for those who still live.

Where ancestral advice is delivered, the masked messenger may not depict an ancestor but rather personify the behavior required by or condemned by them. Often the presentation is something of a morality play and may have ironic overtones. In advising against laziness, the masked character may represent a hard worker but is as likely to be presented as idle and slothful; in advocating against licentiousness, the messenger may be righteous and faithful to his partner, but may also be depicted as a dreadful womanizer.

Where masks connect the living with the spirit world, they can combine both benevolence and threat. This duality is a mirror on life, where nature can provide both abundance and death, and sometimes concurrently.

Masks often appear in healing ceremonies, bringing the powers of the ancestors or natural spirits to restore the sick. The Shaman, or equivalent of spirit doctor, is a common figure in many cultures and is often masked. The westernized name of ‘witch doctor’ is generally a poor appellation; while powerful, spirit healers are not usually seen as witches. They can in fact fight witchcraft. Healing practices are exemplified by the Iroquois people of the Great Lakes. In their False Face Society, masked healers drive away illness and evil spirits in twice yearly rituals. Iroquois False face masks are sacred objects – and you will not see any on display in this exhibit.

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     New Orleans Mardi Gras Day 2000;
     from Wikimedia Commons

Masked dancers can deliver fertility to young women, to ensure the generation of children who are the future for the community. Spirituality can have its lighter side. Some masked dancers are also objects of fun, depicting silly or comedic behaviors to make comment on the foolish actions of human beings. Amongst the pantheon of masked kachinas of the Hopi people are comedic characters such as the Mudhead ‘clowns’, who combine aspects of jester and shaman. They demonstrate improper behavior through amusing caricatures that also serve to relieve the intensity of the occasion. Similar comical characters appear in many African masquerades. In Mexico, many religious festivities have masked characters that enact amusing stories or act as clowns. After all, it is only human nature to respond positively when spiritual and behavioral education is combined with an enjoyable celebration. Masked dancers can make learning and ritual fun. Comfortingly, they can also allow bad or foolish behavior to be manifested in someone else other than us – so we can laugh at, and condemn, another.

It is important to recall that world cultures are not static. Many traditions and practices devolve from blending of cultures over time, a process known as syncretism. This can be seen in the synthesis of pre-Christian and Christian religious celebrations around the world. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, with the fusion of pre-Columbian deities with Christian beliefs and saints, now evident in contemporary religious celebrations. This ‘hybridization’ of cultures and belief systems has generated unique practices including the Mexican masks that are so richly expressed today.

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     Children wearing masks during Lao New Year 2008;
     from Wikimedia Commons

Indeed many of the popular festivals that we see around the world have spiritual roots, even if some at least have become more events of general celebration and partying. The word carnival stems from the Latin carnelevare - to remove (lift) meat - and relates to the fasting of Lent for the Christian celebration of Easter. Mardi Gras is French for ‘Fat Tuesday’, referring to the feasting on rich food prior to Lent. The famous carnivals of Venice (Italy) and Brazil, and the Mardi Gras of New Orleans and elsewhere originate from these Easter festivities. The Christian commemorations have in turn been influenced by much older pagan festivals. Masks are a vital and colorful part of many of these ever changing religious parties.


Do you think many of the major carnivals still have a strong religious motivation?

What do you think is the main reason to wear a mask at Mardi Gras?

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