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Tribal Masks With a consideration of Folk Masquerade Original Tribal masks are often seen by unknowing eyes as art objects in themselves. That is not the case, unless of course they are modern copies. A tribal mask has embued power and is alive during the ceremony for which it is used.
Several years ago I heard this story. An African, from one a well known people, was asked to visit a London museum and give his opinion. He visited a display of masking. "This mask is dead." He stated looking at one familiar to him. He was seeing the mask out of context, it had lost its power for the people who created it and the the magic had died.
To the collectors eyes the very appearance of the mask and the story behind it leads to the magic. The mysterious art forms drawing on the imagination and a need to interpret. As a piece of art it has the power to involve the observer in fathoming meaning to reach an understanding. This can move the viewer into a different frame of reference. Touching a life style that is at once strange and distance, yet it has the feel of something closer to home. A paradox that seems to arise in studying older tribal ways. In a collection this is part of the magic.
It is also important to appreciate that nearly all masks are part of a full costume. Often the costume is made from less durable materials and does not survive. Indeed some masks are also made of less durable materials, such as the basketery Yam mask, created by the Abelam in Papua New Guinea. And again some masks are destroyed as part of the ceremony for which they are made.
The commonality in masking traditions
Delving back into the earliest recordings, historically, a visit to the caves of Trois Feres in France is enlightening. Picture this painted Paleolithic scene.
A central figure stands wearing the head and antlers of a deer. He stands, shaman like, surround by animals. Animals that are important to the culture he represents. Some of the animals no longer exist in this area. Ibex, reindeer, bison, stag and horses. The shaman, for that is what he seems to be, stands, a human figure amongst the potential food. What magic he is creating or ancestors he is communicating with we do not know. Yet from our knowledge of tribal people studied in times closer to ours it is possible to understand the links. The need to hunt for food is essential to survival. The gods link all matters, stay in good standing with the gods and food will be available. Take only what can be used fairly and do not violate the natural laws. Life goes on, following the seasons. There is a balance to life and death. The link between them is maintained by the magician, shaman, wizard, witch doctor, whatever you wish to call him.
During my studies of masks this relationship between the magical and the shaman constantly arises. There is a commonality between the ancient cultures of the Pacific West Coast of North America ( now Canada and Alaska ) and the tribal traditions of Africa. Fertility, the hunted animal, ancestors, initiation, circumcision, cannibalism real and symbolic, healing and crossing over into the spirit world for guidance and healing powers or to appease the gods or ancestors. All these occur in different traditions spread around the world.
As you allow yourself to delve into the traditions surrounding masks in Europe something interesting arises. Here the traditions have been sanitised by the surrounding culture and the church. Yet when you delve back and attempt to understand the masking traditions, now displayed as folk lore, ineresting parallels are revealed. Whilst in Belgium I witnessed a processions depicting witches and and modern giants. Other masquerades also have links to witchcraft and by implication to shaman. One powerful link is the seasonal nature of many traditions. The Green man and the Hobby horse being two examples.
Forgive me. I could continue to wax lyrical about the links in our current traditions seen as folk lore to those of our ancient ancestors. To me there is a tremnedous link which is bound up with the very nature of the people we are and how we have developed. Our formative roots live in our societies now. That is why I find masks so powerfully evocative. Along with other forms of primitive and traditional art we can trace our own links to earlier times. Even today the shaman / magician exists following ancient magik rules.
Even modern latex masks contain some of the same magic, because they are linked back to the same collective unconcious and traditions of masquerade, disguise and the spirit world. As a school teacher I have come across some quite vociferous reactions by parents to having Halloween in school. Some see its pagan links and reject it. The seam runs deep into the modern psyche.
Perhaps the most potent place to view this link is in the Mexican Day of the Dead Celebrations. This festival combines a mix of Christian and Pagan practices. In particular Halloween has a juxtaposition between the dead and children. Here children are masked to scare away the evil spirits and look after the dead. By this means a link with the ancestors and children is perpetuated.
Another fascinating link between the masks of many cultures is the fool. The fool has many characteristics, the most noticeable of which is paradox. The fool can be wise and foolish; handsome and ugly; playful and barbaric. He straddles the line between the extremes of the other masks switching from one role to the other. Perhaps the fool simply represents the many dualities and paradoxes in life.
Also the fool plays a full part in the staging of the ritual. Noohlmahl in the Kwakwaka'wakw rituals is a grotesque creature covered in hair with snot pouring from his nose. He struts about entertaining the crowd, making jokes and anticipating reponses. Should the reponses become too familiar a violent response could be expected. Of course the responses to the watchers comments could be of another more humourous roposte.
Surprise and paradox are essential to the nature of all fools. Another of his jobs is to control the children. He treads the line between clowning for them and ensuring that they do not disrupt proceedings. As with the inappropriate comments from adults a violent response can be provoked should the children, literally, over step the line.
To return to my original point masks are a way into the very nature of our being. The mythology of the Palaeolithic times is linked directly to tribal mask and western folk lore masks. For me this is why the mask holds such power and magic. The mask allows us to physically touch and share our past in a way which few objects can do. Tribal Masks carry a universal signature that appeals to our nature.