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Masks as Artifact and Armor

MASKS, though originating from vastly different cultures, often share similar features and reasons for existing. The four masks shown here illustrate this point. One might be described as folk art from remote Nepal. Another, more sophisticated carving is from the tropical African country of Zaire. Two contemporary masks come from the culture we consider the most advanced technologically - our own.

All four are the simplest type of face mask - just the essential shape of the human face with openings. Oddly enough, the most elaborately designed and pierced mask is the slightly spooky-looking hockey goaltender's mask made of fiberglass. The care with which every aperture is proportioned made it worthy of exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The smoothness of the surface suggests that the aerodynamics of speed were considered. Besides the usual apertures that allow the wearer to see, br eathe, and speak, this mask has extra piercings that are positioned and sized to deflect an oncoming puck as well as provide ventilation.

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In primitive cultures, we often associate masks with ceremonies in which characters from myths and scripture are represented. These characters often personify incorporeal good and evil. Lisa Bradley of the Pace Primitive Gallery, one of the New York City galleries specializing in masks and other primitive artifacts, has this to say: "Tibetan Buddhism teaches that the gods and demons represented by the masks, as well as our own gods and demons, are manifestations of our thoughts and feelings: fear, hate, anger, and desire. If we can recognize our gods and demons as our own thought forms, they lose their power, and we cease to identify with them.... The mask enables the viewer to transcend individual personality."

ON a more superstitious level, the mask is thought to enable the wearer to feel he has become the personage depicted and, in some cultures, the mask itself is thought to be that personage.

But contemporary sports have undeniably their own rituals and spectacles. The thoughtfully designed hockey mask is a good example. By donning this mask, the player becomes part of a sports ritual aimed at intimidating members of the opposing team, and the wearer gains a sense of security. It is said sometimes a hockey player can develop what is called "cage courage" and is thought to play more aggressively than he would without his protective armor.

The carved wood mask from Zaire bears a distinct resemblance to the hockey mask. They would look even more similar if the wood still carried its original white kaolin clay coating. Only traces still remain.

The contemporary hockey mask seems more strange-looking than its African counterpart. Possibly this impression is based on our familiarity with face paintings, like those by Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, which were inspired by African masks.

The mask from Zaire may not have been made to be worn. Some, representing benign ancestral or nature influences, were treasured objects hidden away in the homes. They were probably derived from the same subjects as masks used in public ceremonies but seem to bear a feeling of serenity and intimacy. This mask, elegantly shaped and proportioned, may represent a beneficent influence that the owner might have hoped would dwell with him. Other primitive masks that look as if they were intended to horrify actu ally may have been meant to repel evil, not to personify it.

THE "cold-weather mask," which was made out of heavy felt for the United States Air Force, was presumedly designed solely for functionality. The eyeholes are minimum size, and the nose covering extends down over the mouth - both for maximum warming from the chill air. The distorted proportions of these features and the roundness of the face shape give this mask a comical, jolly look.

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Contemporary maskmakers - including motorcycle and sporting goods companies, underwater contractors, body-armor companies, suppliers for the military and fire and police departments - were in the early part of this century influenced by tribal masks and medieval armor. Made of leather, metal, or rubber, masks were heavy and cumbersome. Today the materials used are synthetic plastics that can be mass-produced and combined for specific protection against temperature extremes, water, flames, and other harmf ul elements.

The fourth mask on the page, which is almost a primitive counterpart to the felt cold-weather mask, comes from a cold-weather part of the world, Nepal, in the Himalaya Mountains.

Although it seems almost impossible that the designers of these two masks could be aware of each other aesthetically, these two round-faced masks are almost comic twins. The smallness of the eye holes and the prominence of the nose are shared proportions. Even the carved ridge that might represent a mustache is echoed by the stitching on either side of the mouth in the felt mask.

Compared with the mask from Zaire, the one from Nepal is roughly carved - crafted much more in a folk art tradition. It retains traces of various pigments and the effect when it was new would have been more colorful. Some Himalayan masks were carefully sculpted on the inside to follow the contours of nose, cheeks, and chin. For the most part, face masks are simply curved inside.

Masks have been popular in almost all cultures and epochs, expressive of the various societies that made them. There is no doubt that mankind's fascination with the face and the variety of ways in which artists and designers render it will keep all kinds of masks in museums for us to enjoy.

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