With western eyes we tend to view a tribal mask as a piece of fantastic sculpture. It is a decorative object to be displayed and enjoyed as a work of art. A piece of art that allows us to touch the world of the other, which we vaguely understand. Yet for the people who created it, it is a living object that possesses specific powers.
If you have ever visited a museum or gallery displaying ethnic or tribal art you may have asked yourself why are these shapes and forms used? What is this for? What kind of occasions called for these fabulous objects? Why and how was it made?
As I have studied mask I have realized that there are many answers to these questions. Each mask has its own story. Each mask is unique. Yet within that uniqueness there are commonalties. Interestingly the common aspects cross continental boundaries.
Why is a new mask needed?
In the aboriginal traditions the need for a new mask could vary greatly.
It could be
to honor an ancestor
to satisfy a request from the spirit world
for a new initiate
an old mask had served its usefulness
commissioned by a shaman for a specific purpose.
To mention a few.
How is the mask commissioned and created?
Once a need for a mask is recognized the commission can be made. A mask maker will have other roles in the practice of his carving and wood working construction skills. In some cultures all created objects were given a ritual and sacred element. The carves will know the traditional forms yet will also have artistic integrity. A new mask will be an expression of his skills, traditional knowledge and the link with the spirit world.
First a tree must be chosen. The forest has many trees. Which one is the true tree to be used? The diviner is asked for help. Using his knowledge of ancient traditions he enters the forest and begins to tune in to the wavelengths of the trees. He is guided towards the perfect tree. He knows this is the one.
The diviner introduces the tree to the carver. A ritual links the carver and the tree. A cut is made into the tree. The carver drinks from the sap. He absorbs some of the tree's spirit, man and the tree become one.
The first cuts for the mask are made into the living wood. The mask is sketched out, roughly hewn in a basic form. As the mask is revealed by the artist it is taken from the tree and finished in a closed workshop or secret place in the forest. Often a mask is carved in secret. To have the mask seen before it is complete breaks its magic, its power. Only when the mask is inhabited by the spirit, animal guide or ancestor is it whole and complete.
The mask has a life. It is not a dead object so long as it is in use. If the mask is not used it becomes less powerful as the spirit will leave as it is no longer being called upon for useful work.
An African elder visiting a London museum observed that the masks were dead. Here in this museum the masks had lost their power as they had lost the links to the spirit world. As exhibits the magic had gone from the mask the spirits returned to the spirit world.
The other aspect that is always worth remembering is that the mask is only one part of the of the whole effect. A costume is needed to support the mask, as is the music, the drumming, chants and songs, dances and of course the other participants. All combine to invoke the ceremony whether it be to celebrate coming of age, harvest or other important event.
Masks have great power to absorb our attention. Not all masks are created within a spiritual tradition yet the basic process of disguise takes us, at times into another mental dimension.
© Ian Bracegirdle 2005 http://www.mask-and-more-masks.com