Published: July 18, 2006
One might think that the only masks to be found in Cooperstown are the catcher’s masks at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Not so. Nearby, at the Fenimore Art Museum, 50 masks of a different order are on display. Worn by players in the game of life, these masks evoke as much passion as any ever experienced in a ballpark.
Visitors to the Fenimore’s new exhibit “Reveal Conceal: The Transforming Power of Masks” are greeted by the callouts and the stamping feet of costumed throngs, the beating of drums and the music of the gamelan.
Although the spectacles are video replays of masquerade rituals practiced in Alaska and Indonesia, South Vietnam and Europe, Latin America and Africa, they create a mood and a context for this important collection.
Eva Fognell, Thaw collection manager and curator, designed the show so that viewers would feel like participants in these events. “I only wish we could have added the smells and sensations of the ceremonies,” she said.
The inspiration for the show, open through December 31, grew from the popularity of Fenimore’s highly regarded Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of Central Yup’ik, Alaska, masks. “We decided to set it [the Thaw collection] in a global context. The exhibit is organized around aspects of the human journey in which masks traditionally play a role. They are Remembrance, Transition, Renewal, Spirituality and Theater,” Fognell stated.
The hand carved and finely crafted characterizations of godsand mythological characters strike a primal chord. It is easy tounderstand their appeal to collectors as well as artists assophisticated as Picasso, whose African-like masks in “LesDemoiselles d’Avignon” created a sensation.
Fognell explained that masks have played a part in the human drama since the Stone Age. Cave paintings discovered shortly before World War I in the cave of “Trois Frères” in Montesquieu-Avantès in Southern France depict hunters in animal masks. A disguise, no doubt, intended to fool their prey.
Ever since, masks have been making it possible for people to get out of themselves and onto a higher or different plane. Of course, lore and belief have a lot to do with that, but it is the art of the mask maker that fulfills the desire. So important is the craft to ritual that indigenous artisans entrusted with turning reflections of faith and mythology into manifestations of art hold a position of honor in most societies.
Honing their skills at the knee of family members, shamans or masters of the performing arts, these unnamed artisans work with nature’s materials. In their hands wood, papier mache, pigment, feathers, cowry shells and raffia become gods and beasts, demons and women. Their statements are as individual as their cultures. The men who dance the masks – it is rare that women are permitted to participate – know that the artistry will protect their earthly identities even as they themselves are transformed into supernatural beings.
With so many fine masks having been lent by privatecollectors and institutions, it was difficult for Fognell to singleout just a few examples that best articulate the ways in whichdiverse cultures approach and cope with life’s enigmas.
One of the most artistic masks in “Reveal Conceal” is that of the Central Yup’ik figure known as Nepcetat, whose task it is to confirm and reaffirm the powers of Yup’ik shamans. The face of Nepcetat is a grinning one, impregnated with holes and topped off by a crown of feathers. It rests on a plaque or back plate. The cedar mask on display is from the Fenimore’s Thaw collection. It dates to circa 1840-1860. Although the artisan is unknown, the piece was recently restored by the Yup’ik craftsman Chuna McIntyre. It contains the feathers of swans, ducks and snowy owls, as well as fox teeth, sealskin thong, reed, blood, blue pigment, ochre and charcoal.
The Remembrance group, which Fognell identifies as “masks used in ceremonies that connect people to their lineage,” include a selection of Nepcetat masks. It was the shaman’s challenge to lift Nepcetat off the ground using only his face. If the deed was easily accomplished, the shaman was in full possession of mystical powers that could effectively cure the sick, control the weather, accompany war parties, send spirits to spy on enemies and ensure an abundance of fish and berries. At such time that the shaman could no longer lift the mask, his power was known to be declining.
Yet another mask from the same category is Dalem, the romantic hero in Bali and Java’s courtly dance drama, the Topang. Dalem, which means raja or king, reminds viewers that he is the role model for all good rulers. He possesses intelligence, nobility and a forceful yet positive disposition that is mirrored in every aspect of the mask on view. His face is painted white to signify clarity, purity and upstanding morals. Mother-of-pearl teeth underscore that theme. Hide hair marks his mustache. Beneath the gilded crown on his jet black hair and centered between two benevolent eyes is a golden droplet. It is the famous “cuda manik,” or third eye, which is the symbol of knowledge and wisdom.
While parents in the West may turn to books or psychoanalysisfor clarity on their teenagers, women of the Sande Society ofSierra Leone teach young girls what is expected of them. Initiationinto the society is almost as heavy a burden as leaving a carefreegirlhood behind in order to become a woman, for the “sowo-wui” maskthat must be worn during these rites is a head-covering helmet madeof wood.
The one in the Fenimore show is a classic example dating from the late Nineteenth or early Twentieth Century. Black, with a glossy patina, the helmet is intricately carved with meaningful designs that symbolize the most desirable aspects of feminine beauty and submissiveness. The shine represents oiled skin; the large forehead, intelligence. The “hair” of the mask is braided. Downcast eyes and delicate features are a paean to modesty and submissiveness. Around the face and eyes of this mask are scarlike markings.
Notably, the “sowo-wui” is the only mask in Africa that is worn and owned by women, although it is traditionally made by men.
Initiations of the men in Nkanu, Democratic Republic of Congo, Fognell related, call for the Kakuungu mask. Kakuungu is the largest and most important one with which this society dances. The excellent example in the Fenimore collection dates to the early Twentieth Century, when the country was still known as Zaire. Made of wood, fiber and fabric, it rises 32 inches tall.
Kakuungu has empty eye sockets, an open mouth and a long raffia beard. On his head, he wears a colorful cloth headdress, which is painted with geometric patterns symbolic of the initiation. Circled crosses on either side, for instance, symbolize the sun, the crossroads, and the intersection of positive and negative forces.
Masks used in Renewal observances range from playful to frightening. Le Tigre, a contemporary cousin of the Maya/Toltec jaguar mask, is a papier mache mask painted bright yellow, with brilliant blue eyes and a long red tongue sticking out of its mouth. Worn with an equally colorful cat suit that has patches at the knees, Le Tigre is the adornment of choice in ritualistic battles between competing villages. The brilliant mask in the Fenimore exhibit is the work of Velascuez Serrano from the town of Suchiapa, Chiapis, Mexico.
Far more realistic is Chi Wara – the antelope hero thatintroduced agriculture to the Bamana people of Mali. Crouchingabove a headdress fashioned of cloth and cowry shells, he appearsready to spring. A long but blunted nose balances a curled tail atthe end of a slender body.
The men who wear this mask are initiates of the Chi Wara Society (the only Bamana society that allows women). The Chi Wara dancers, however, are always male and almost always appear in pairs, one portraying a male character and the other a female. Together they stand for the sun and the earth and the harmonious relationship of the two that is vital to life. The Chi Wara dances are performed at the beginning and end of the growing cycle to ensure the fertility of the fields and crops.
Nearby is a devil mask from Austria. This pagan holdover is fierce looking, with a long down-turned nose, bared teeth and goatlike ears. The collection mask was danced at Innsbruck in 1963 in a traditional festival marking the beginning and end of the year.
Just as societies used masking to address the challenges of the living, so did they rely on masks as an aid to the dead. A mummy mask of carved wood waited within a walled tomb from the time of the Second Kingdom until relatively recently, when explorers relieved it of its sacred duty. No longer guiding the spirit of the deceased to home, it rests now among those in the exhibit used to express Spirituality.
An eerie looking mask of wood from the elusive Yao people of Vietnam and Thailand is long of tooth and skull-like in form. Draped in rice paper, which would have been pulled off and burned, it was used in rituals that reunite the living with the past.
No exhibit on masking would be complete without a selectionof performance masks. Whether the colorful Puerto Rican Vejigantes,which is danced during Carnival, or the pale white visage of theJapanese Noh mask, whose expression appears to change with everytilt of an accomplished actor’s head, performance masks are verymuch with us.
From Sri Lanka comes the Serpent Demon. This colorful mask is made of wood and painted with a Hollywood red mouth and white teeth. From its nostrils emerge snakes. From its ears, cobras uncoil like the loose ends of a tape measure. Large eyes appear to stare upward at the three cobras that form its crown. The message warns of evil power of venomous snakes that can quietly and quickly destroy life. Despite its ugliness, the Serpent Demon is a much-loved character from the Kolam, who recites Hindu myths and tells stories about village history.
Finally, the capricious Windmaker mask of the Central Yup’ik distinguishes this category. Carved of cedar, it is enhanced with a crown of seagull feathers and flowing ribbons of caribou fur that symbolize the cold north wind as well as the breath of the spirit. It is danced during Alaskan winter performances as stories of the cold north wind unfolded.
While the title of the Fenimore Art Museum show – “Reveal and Conceal: The Transforming Power of Masks” – refers to the way masks liberate the wearer, it also goes a long way in describing the show’s ultimate impact. “Reveal Conceal” is as much an education in world culture as it is a pure art experience.
The exhibition offers the opportunity to view a collection culled from such prestigious collections as the Longyear Museum of Anthropology, Colgate University; the Fenimore’s permanent Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection; the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University; the Asia Barong Gallery, as well several from private collections, including those of Dr Alejandro Garcia, Dr Charles Rand Penney and Nancy Bucket.
“Reveal Conceal: The Transforming Power of Masks” is on display in the Great Hall, American Indian Wing of the Fenimore Art Museum. The museum is at 5798 State Route 80. For information, 607-547-1400 or www.fenimoreartmuseum.org.
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