By Michele Bacigalupo
At New York City’s Rubin Museum of Art, one exhibit invites visitors to imagine the life behind another kind of face, entirely dissimilar from their own. In the installation Becoming Another: The Power of Masks, museum patrons are able to observe variations in mask configuration from historic traditions around the world.
The exhibit is composed of approximately 100 different masks from the 15th to 20th centuries, traditional to the cultures of Northern India, Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Siberia, Japan, and the North-West Coast tribes of North America.
The intended purpose behind each mask varies as throughout the exhibit. A visitor can expect to see representations of monkeys, birds, and, of course, humans.
One of the first pieces on display upon entering the showroom is the Joker. Surrounding the mask is a handful of other clownish faces. Masks of this design have served different functions over the years. The faces were worn during festival celebrations, pious ceremonies, and theater productions.
The outline of a joker’s face is designed “to shock and entertain.” Some of the masks manifest themselves as silly and harmless, while others appear frightening.
Another section emphasizes a shaman’s attire from early 20th century Mongolia. The outfit is a medley of cloth and materials woven together. Almost like a suit of armor, it includes a full-body coat and headgear. Since the shaman’s role was to communicate between Earth and the spiritual world, his costume was meant to symbolize great power.
Along one wall there is a succession of Japanese masks portraying faces of women. Each visage has porcelain skin, with elegant embellishments of makeup, fitting for a collector’s doll.
The piece Otafuku represents what may have been early Japan’s “idealized” vision of feminine beauty. The name means “good fortune.” Its face is plump and heavily dimpled, sporting a jolly, open-mouthed grin. The smile symbolizes a woman’s inner beauty.
Adjacent is another mask that represents a younger girl, still several years away from acquiring the wisdom and experience of the Otafuku face. The younger version has a more slender facial structure, but captures an expression of neutrality. While the Otafuku face imitates a bubbling sense of joy, its younger counterpart is more reserved.
The majority of the pieces are made with papier-mache and painted in polychrome. Others are compiled of earthly elements such as wood, copper, or leather.
Though antique and taken from foreign lands, the curated selection of masks at Becoming Another offers interesting insight into humankind’s long-established practices of escapism, imagination, and projecting ourselves into the perspectives of others.
All photos by Michele Bacigalupo.
‘Becoming Another’ will be on display at the Rubin Museum until February 2016.