Saturday, 19 October 2013

Liberia - The Land behind the Mask

Like many West African nations, Liberia is well-known for its masks.  Used in traditional rituals and tribal ceremonies, the mask plays a very important role in concealing the identity of the main actors in a ceremony - it could be your next-door neighbour or your grandfather - masks facilitate an illusion, a mystery or a private space where human identity is hidden from public knowledge.

African masks are usually made from wood, leather, tin, glass beads or natural materials.  However, they are endowed with their own power and become something more than pieces of wood or leather.  In West Africa, masks weren't traditionally made as decorative objects, but rather fetishes with significant spiritual value, independent of the mask's creator or bearers. 

African masks can represent idealised human forms (anthropomorphic) or animal forms (zoomorphic) - they can cover the face, the whole head or even the upper body.

It got me thinking about the importance of masks to human culture, so I've made a list of different ways that masks are used across the world.

Concealing identity - one of the most important uses of a mask is to conceal someone's identity.  Whether it's a Poro devil carrying out an initiation ceremony in the Liberian jungle, someone robbing a bank in Basingstoke or Michael Jackson concealing the identity of his kids - the main purpose of a mask is to take away the real identity of the wearer, so they can remain anonymous, for any number of reasons.

African figures, Horniman museum
Violence - masks are often used to hide the face of someone committing an act of violence.  The mask I'm most familiar with from my childhood is probably the balaclava - a favourite fashion item of the IRA!  I guess, by putting on a mask, the wearer is removing themselves from the responsibility of a violent situation or, at the very least, concealing their identity, so they won't be legally prosecuted afterwards. 

Let's be honest - masks scare us - at Hallowe'en, or any other time of the year - seeing another human being with their identity removed taps into a sense of fear that runs deep in the human psyche.  Perhaps this fear or phobia also extends to the debate around niqabs and burqas?  Certainly a lot of the debate in the UK has focused on veils as a barrier to communication, something which stops us from interpreting facial expressions. 

Eroticism - somehow connected to fear, is the erotic aspect of masks.  By giving people anonymity, masks can also remove normal societal restrictions on sexuality.  I suspect that a lot of traditional ceremonies use masks for this reason, although the secretive nature of initiation rites means that we may never find out the truth. 

African mask, Horniman museum
An obvious example of using masks in this way is the Masquerade Balls of 15th and 16th century Europe, thinly disguised orgies for the upper classes.  A toned down version of this tradition is kept alive by the Venice carnivale and Venetian masks are famous the world over.  Anyone who's seen the movie Eyes Wide Shut (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1999) will understand the power and sensuality of masks and masquerade balls!

Hygiene - a much more mundane, but universal, use of masks is related to hygiene.  Surgeons all over the world wear masks, as do dentists and other health professionals.  Surgical masks have become very popular in the heavily polluted cities of East Asia and I remember seeing TV news footage of people in China wearing masks during the SARS outbreak in 2002. 

Masks can be used as a form of punishment - I'm thinking here of a 15th century tradition in the UK where women who gossiped a lot were forced to wear a contraption called a scold's bridle, which preventing them from talking.  I'm also thinking of the 'man in the iron mask' of 17th century France - an unidentified prisoner who was forced to wear a mask to conceal his identity - possibly because he was an illegitimate (or legitimate?) heir to the throne.  And I can't help but think of Hannibal Lecter, the character played by Anthony Hopkins in the film, Silence of the Lambs (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1991)

Actor getting ready, Beijing Opera
In Korean, Chinese and Japanese traditions, masks are used to establish the characters of a story - in Peking Operas, both masks and make-up are used to identify characters and let the audience know if they are goodies (the red and black ones) or baddies (the yellow and white ones). 

Masks can be used to hide scars or other facial deformities.  I'm thinking Darth Vader from the Star Wars series of movies.  Or the Phantom of the Opera, or The Elephant Man (dir. David Lynch, 1980)

In our magic-less, scientific age, it's more likely that you will see masks being sold as souvenirs - whether you're in Venice, Kuta, Bamako or Iqaluit - I'm pretty sure you will be able to pick up a mask as a souvenir.  Work of art, retainer of magic, vessel of illusions - masks are certainly a vital part of human culture. 

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me - please feel free to re-use them with attribution to this blog. 
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