A mask seems to be an object to cover, conceal, yet also reveal a culturally specific meaning to provoke a desired result. Not surprisingly, “mask” is related to the term “masquerading.” It makes us think of a formal masquerade ball with a playful, coquettish eye-mask on a stick. Yet masks have an ancient history and often inspire fear as well as flirtation. The term in Arabic is “mascara” meaning joke. And, even Egyptian mummies have been discovered wearing masks.
The question of masks and how they define or confuse the gaze is intriguing to me. “Gaze” I’m using here to mean the act of intentionally looking at something. As humans we tend to look at faces, specifically at eyes. “You might be the recipient of another’s gaze, for instance, because you are a potential meal, a mate, or simply because you are someone with whom they would like to interact.
Understanding that the meeting of eyes in a gaze can signal either attraction for friendship, or even attraction before a fatal conflict. It has been important for survival to be able to immediately interpret what was intended in the gaze. We developed a system for catching an eye, instantly evaluating friend or foe, and reacting in fight, flight or flirt. .
So a mask—especially when the eyes are not observable—acts to confuse the viewer’s ability to interpret what signals this other human is projecting from their eyes or face, and the viewer fixates on the mask itself.
As we consider masks and their purposes whether ceremony, sacrifice, (execution’s mask also comes to mind), titillation, or Halloween festivities, we can consider how the primary objectives of masks are to:
1) Disguise the wearer.
2) Distract the viewer through feathers, noisemakers, ornamentation, paint, and design.
3) Connect the wearer with his/her local tribe or culture.
4) Add elements of the personality or role of the wearer, such as a medicine man or jester.
5) Add emotion to the interaction: flirtation, frivolity, solemnity, fear, etc.
It struck me that contemporary hockey goalie masks, do all of these things. The design of the mask: 1) hides the face of the goalie and his eyes; 2) tends to distract the other players; 3) relates to the theme, name or mascot of the team; 4) has a personal meaning for the goalie, and 5) amplifies the terror implied in the fierceness of the wearer.
As you look at the Sports Illustrated link of the top 10 hockey goalie masks of the decade, consider how the goalie masks have unintentionally adapted some of the design elements illustrated in these dramatic masks I’ve included here from the collection of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. These masks are some of my favorite of the over 900 masks in the Collection of the Peabody Museum.
But back to the core idea of what is a mask, in my mask research there were ongoing discussions about women and masks. In many cultures masks are primarily worn by men.
Margaret Thompson Drewal in discussing masks used in the West African rituals of the Yoruba people, defined the term as “to mask is to conceal something.”
She then suggests that pregnancy acts as “full body masks,” with the mother-to-be masking the child developing within her. Drewal states, “Metaphorically speaking, woman was the original mask.” Interesting thought. Makes me think, as a woman, how our female bodies and our behavior may act as masks.
What do you think about masks?
Here are some resources for more information:
Click on this link to see more masks in the collection of Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Click the “Search the Collection” link and then “perform a search.” I searched for “masks.” I was OK with 900+ in my result. Feel free to narrow your search to “African” or whatever suits your interest.
There are breathtaking masks in the exhibition, Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection See the exhibition or buy the catalog. Eva Fognell, Editor. Cooperstown: The Fenimore Art Museum, 2010. Masks for women and men; for a horse (!) and wonderful finger-masks—like finger-puppets only very large and dramatic. Exhibition schedule: Minneapolis Institute of Art, now through January 9, 2011; Indianapolis Museum of Art, December 4, 2011 – February 12, 2012.
A wonderful, really delightful online interactive unit called “Curious Corner” that offers several engaging opportunities ot interact with art on the Art Institute of Chicago site. The unit was created by Sandbox Studios, Minneapolis. In the various segments, one introduces masks. All the segments are fun for children and adults alike. The mask unit is truly beautiful.
 C. P. Cavafy, Harvard Book Review, No 17/18 (Summer-Fall, 1990). Cambridge: Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library, 1990. 4.
 S.R.H. Langton, R. J. Watt, and V. Bruce. (2000). “Do the eyes have it? Cues to the direction of social attention.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 2000. Cambridge: Cell Press Journal 2000. 51-52.
 C. Neil Macrae, Bruce M. Hood, Alan B. Milne, Angela C. Rowe, Malia F. Mason. “Are You Looking at Me? Eye Gaze and Person Perception,” Psychological Science, Vol. 13, No. 5 (Sep., 2002), Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2002. 461.
 Margaret Thompson Drewal. Yoruba Ritual: Performers, Play, Agency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. 185.
 Elisabeth L. Cameron, “Women=Masks: Initiation Arts in North-Western Province, Zambia,” African Arts, Vol. 31, No. 2, Special Issue: Women’s Masquerades in Africa and the Diaspora (Spring, 1998), Los Angeles: UCLA James S. Coleman African Studies Center, 1998. 58.