Mask Wearing Then and Now

By guest blogger Suzanne Livesay, Straz Center Vice President of Education and Community Engagement

Masks blog

Mask wearing has been a topic of conversation in the United States for almost three months and counting. A required piece of attire as we reintroduce our on-site summer camps at Patel Conservatory will be the mask. No matter how one might feel about them at this time in history, the mask has played a variety of important roles throughout the years and across cultures.

Historically speaking, masks are known to have been used for religious ceremonies dating back almost 3500 years ago in Ancient China and Ancient Egyptians placed stylized masks on the faces of their dead. Among the most splendid of the Egyptian burial portrait masks is the one created about 1350 BCE for the pharaoh Tutankhamen. By the 3rd century AD, golden burial masks were worn by the mummies of Inca royalty and features were generic representations of these ancient Mexicans.

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The funerary mask of Tutankhamun, on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, is made of gold, glass and semi-precious stones

Perhaps most familiar to our Patel Conservatory students are the masks of western theater. The Greeks introduced masks during the 6th Century BC with Thespis, the rumored father of the Western actor, receiving credit. Masks were used to depict characters, were exaggerated, enlarged and even contained built-in megaphones to help them be seen and heard throughout the outdoor amphitheaters of the day.

Since the 14th century, Japanese Noh drama used about 125 named varieties of masks classified into five general types: old persons, gods, goddesses, devils, and goblins. Colors were used in a traditional and general manner to depict each type. Theatrical dance dramas called wayang wong, common in Indonesian culture, introduced the use of masks in 18th century which were not only performed for entertainment, but also believed to safeguard against disasters.

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Topeng is a dramatic form of Indonesian dance in which mask-wearing performers interpret traditional narratives.

Other cultures, such as American Indians, African and Oceanic peoples utilized masks as part of ceremonies occurring at certain times of the year set aside to honor ancestors. Masks were worn reflecting the ancestor being honored. Still other cultures don large colorful helmet-like masks after initiation into adulthood, like those worn in western and central regions of Democratic Republic of the Congo. Believing the human spirit could switch back and forth from human to animal form, Northwest Coast Indians devised mechanical masks with movable parts to reveal a second face.

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This Raven/Sisutl transformation mask from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation is in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Though the masks we’ll use when Patel Conservatory classes and camps return to the Straz Center may not be as ornate, symbolic, or complex as the masks that are part of human history, they’ll symbolize initial steps toward being able to gather and create together again. The tradition of mask wearing for remembrance, celebration and festival that started so long ago re-emerges today. This time, providing an opportunity for student performers to once again dream, reach, discover and create–signaling the end of our intermission.

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Reference: Encyclopedia Britannica online (brittanica.com)

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