Masks occur in every human culture I’ve ever run across, and their purpose is always the same: disguise. In the theater of ancient Greece, the disguise served to submerge the actor in the persona of the god or hero he portrayed. Among the Cherokee and Iroquois of North America, the fearsome headgear served to frighten malignant spirits away. In Mycenae, masks were funerary effigies, a practice found throughout the ancient world and also found among the great pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. (And don’t suppose that a funeral mask is not a disguise — just think about it for a moment, particularly in terms of what’s involved in getting to the Underworld.) Africa has been home to one of the most highly developed mask-as-art-form traditions, with masks allowing the wearer to become a demon, a guardian spirit, a totem, something that we see as far back as the Aurignacian culture of early Europe in the striking image of the “Sorcerer of Trois Freres,” a priest-magician, perhaps, disguised to intercede between his people, hunters all, and the game they hunted.
You’ll note there always seems to be a religious component in the use of masks, even as rarified as it became in the later days of Athens and the Greater Dionysia — the origins of our modern theater. Even children coursing the streets on Hallowe’en, disguised as witches, pirates, gypsies, or the latest movie hero — or villain — hark back to a much older tradition, disguised to shield themselves from the spirits that walk the earth during those days of the dead.
These are the sorts of thoughts sparked by browsing through Garth Dahl’s catalogue of his own collection of masks, highlighting just one reason for collecting them: they’re fascinating. It’s an idiosyncratic collection, spanning most of the globe, with examples from the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe — almost every place that human societies have created these false faces. It’s not a collection focused on antiquity, authenticity, or artistic quality, although the masks are well-executed and each displays a degree of integrity in concept, as well as in most cases of strong sense of the continuation of a tradition. (Although as Dahl himself points out, there is a lively sense of new influences and new materials examined and incorporated into the mask maker’s art.) It also becomes quickly evident that Dahl has a broad view of “mask,” incorporating not only ritual and decorative masks but also effigies and plaques.
The wealth found here is in the illustrations and descriptions of the masks themselves. Each is illustrated in color, and while the images are not all large, they are very clear, with a good rendering of detail. Dahl’s descriptions and anecdotes add context, and as one goes through the various sections (arranged by geographic areas), one gets a feeling for a deep “ur-tradition” underlying the variety of examples he shows.
The book also includes an interview with Reg Davidson, a Haida artist and mask maker, and an account of Dahl’s participation in a ceremony known as “The End of Mourning.” There’s a brief bibliography included, which will serve to provide more information for those interested in continuing in this area.
As an introduction, this is a handy, concise and informative little volume. It also leads to reflections on the nature of masks that can lead almost anyplace.
(Modern World Publishing, 2006)