Masks: from ancient cultures to renewed relevance

Masks link us to the past and – as most of us are wearing them to go out in public now – define the present. They have the power to connect us to new perspectives.

Now that we are again free – relatively – to leave our homes and fulfil normal pursuits, we are confronted by a new aesthetic. Our mask marks us, reflecting both a small piece of our personality and an enormous social and anti-social comment: take note of me, but keep your distance – and breathe your own air.

The 2020 wave is new, but wearing masks is a muscle memory from ancient times. The oldest discovered mask dates back 9 000 years, but those of organic material, visible in cave paintings from the Paleolithic Age 20 000 years ago, will have disintegrated.

A new book, Mask – the culmination of 30 years’ work by world-renowned documentary photographer Chris Rainier – is a photographic and anthropological showcase of a small part of this history. The striking and intriguing portraits are purposefully posed as a portal to fascinating, fading worlds, as globalisation threatens tiny, remote cultures. Together with sensitive accompanying ethnographic commentaries, they catalogue how some of the world’s endangered populations use the power of masks to connect with hidden forces in seeking protection, guidance, inspiration and transformation in myriad ways. 

Each of Mask’s 130 images is a window to humanity’s shared lineage stretching back generations, ages, centuries, millennia. They span the continents, embracing 19 regions including far-flung Alaska, inaccessible New Guinea and quaintly rural Austria. They capture an intensity and depth of emotions and meanings: those used in ceremonial Buddhist dances in the isolated Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan look mysteriously sagacious; the full-body outfits donned by youths when they roam central European streets during Krampus Night are menacing, intended to frighten in depicting the battle between evil and the good of Saint Nicholas; the hooded Egungun dance costumes of Benin are premonitory references, part of an ancient ritual to ward off evil.

The specific masks and traditions portrayed are distinctively endemic, but threading the images are universal themes, truths, devotions and dreads – projections of humanity’s yearning for the meaning of life and its sacred purpose. 

Undated: Plate 1. Plank mask, Bwa Region, Burkina Faso.

The air we breathe

“Masks are the sound we make when speaking to the divine, the voice of the human spirit outside of the everyday – and therefore, the voice of the gods, which every human can register,” writes travel writer Pico Iyer in the book’s insightful foreword, underscoring what links our past to our current crisis: when we don our protective masks against Covid-19, it’s an explicit plea to others, and an implicit prayer to a deity for safeguarding. 

This is the mask as magic, of course. Condescendingly, just months ago we may have sneered that only “primitive cultures” believe rituals ward off evil spirits; now, we all want protection from such spirits – and the awfulness lurking in the very air we breathe. 

In hiding our faces, masks paradoxically reveal human nature, in all our desires and deadly sins. We use them to motivate or mock, project or conceal, instil fear or disguise our own, or to identify with a group. They express our individuality or are factional totems, such as the half-masted mask, hung limply around the throat as a recognition of viral dangers but a simultaneous marker of discontent, a right-wing affiliation, perhaps, or a smirking conviction of stronger immunity and hence superior breed.

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In this Covid-19 context, masks are now communication props: badges of mutual respect; or full-face shields pointing to an obsessively fearful personality; or a colourful buff flagging peacocking fashion-consciousness as paramount. 

More broadly across our evolution, in unleashing the imagination masks have enabled the discovery of what it is to be human, in all its artfulness and designs. In so doing we gain an internal, personal permission to suppress our own essence and to feel what it is like to metamorphosise, to role play, to shadow our true selves. We are all actors, to a degree, and masks empower enacting of powerful personae, even the imitation of the divine. “Every one of us, the mask reports, is a god in hiding,” writes Iyer. 

Undated: Plate 2. Buddhist dance masks and prayer flags, Bhutan.

Transformative energy

As metaphors, masks code what is beautiful and aspirational – and also the nightmarish. Playfully so, in Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival masks, or ghoulish Halloween costumes, but more sinister in the all-too-real sunbed-orange lacquerware worn by the current White House occupier. 

The transformative energy of a mask can generate what Iyer calls an elemental jolt, which underpins their provocative power as part of the protest wardrobe. From the sartorial uniformity of the anarchist, anti-globalisation Black Bloc protests starting in the late 1980s, to the more recent political disaffection of Hong Kong’s rolling actions, masks reinforce collective struggles. And “I can’t breathe” – Eric Garner’s and George Floyd’s last words, converted to Black Lives Matter’s rallying cry – amplifies the connection between power, politics and pandemic. As individuals we are vulnerable against the virus and the state, but masks help us overcome this fragility.  

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Indeed, a warning to 21st century civilisation is implicit within Mask. “I see my photographic documentation and understand with an intense clarity that we are running out of time,” Rainier writes of the impending loss of the wisdom and spirituality of ancient but now marginalised peoples and traditions. Mask tells us about our past, about human nature – and about our current, Covid-19 crisis-torn present: today, our utilitarian masks are a warning of how we have lost touch with nature, and what the consequences of that may be for our fate, and the planet’s.   

Mask propels other profound considerations. The larger photographs are so densely communicative that it’s possible to project outwards from the mask-wearer. This inversion of perspective, the visual artist as seeing rather than being seen, demands in turn our own reflection upon perspective: how do we look more carefully at the world – not only the societies reflected in the pages of Mask, but across our own communities? How can we truly observe and notice, rather than just look? In the sense that Covid-19 forces us to wear masks, we should feel compelled to use our senses to truly search. If this requires deeper empathy, the physical barrier of a mask will have achieved a noble ambition.  

Mask by Chris Rainier is published by Earth Aware Editions, 2019.

Undated: Book cover image and Plate 58. Buddhist mask, Paro Valley, Bhutan.
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