Unmasked

Israel Museum curator Efrat Natan discusses transcultural connection between masks, change and afterlife.

By DAVID STROMBERG
May 21, 2009 12:26
Unmasked

scary mask 88 248. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Masks are inextricably tied to change - literal or figurative, physical or spiritual. This transformation may involve a slight shift in bodily details, be a personification of the animal world or act as a gateway to altered states. In the most extreme case, masks can even help mediate the ultimate state of change: death. "The connection between masks and afterlife always returns," says Efrat Natan, curator of the exhibit "Many Faces: Masks from Many Times and Many Places," currently on show at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. She points to an ancient burial tablet from Jaffa, on which a relief carving shows a young man (possibly the deceased) holding a tragic mask in his hands. She further suggests that death is connected with other natural stages of maturation. "There's more than one mask," she says, "which is used both in funeral and initiation ceremonies." Natan, a visual artist and art curator, was invited by the museum to curate "a show about masks as I saw it." She emphasizes that she has no academic background in anthropology, and though she did a lot of reading and research in preparing for the show, she first worked from the point of view of the exhibit space, and then moved to the information she gathered. "The moment I see the space, I have my exhibition," she says of her present and previous curating experience. Walking into the youth wing, where she had curated exhibits before, she immediately imagined a Modernistic hut in the middle of the room. "I imagined it as a [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe villa," she adds, referring to the great Bauhaus architect and furniture designer who built the glass-walled Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. She explained her idea to architect and exhibit designer Lilach Shtayat, who built a large, square, hut-like display with glass walls. "When you move around the architecture of the exhibit," she points out, "the masks seem to move as well." The Mies hut takes up most of the exhibit room, and Shtayat also added a passageway on one of the sides, which leads halfway into the structure and allows the viewer to look through small square cutouts in the wall at the backs of the masks. "It makes the space into a giant mask," comments Natan. "You step into the dark, behind the mask, and peek outside." Natan points out that many people treat masks as three-dimensional art objects like sculptures, but that in fact masks are meant to be in a state of motion. "A mask is worn on a person that animates it at the same time as going into a trance," she explains. To introduce this understanding into the show, Natan has set up projectors along two walls that screen looped fragments of local ritual dance performances and competitions from Burkina Faso, in the western part of Central Africa. In the background play recordings of tribal drumming. The idea is to communicate the concept of a mask on a person moving along to music, but also the relationship between those standing around watching. "The person with the mask needs the others to be different from them and change into something else," she says. THE EXHIBIT was conceived as what Natan calls "a conference of masks." This means that, like in conferences, representatives stay largely with their own groups, but they also do a little bit of nongroup mingling. The groups include masks from the Americas (both pre-and post-Columbus), Asia and Africa, as well as archeological finds from the larger Mediterranean region. "I'm interested in what they have in common," says Natan, "in what kind of language or behavior comes through. Much of what you see [in the video fragments] relates to performances, not rites or ceremonies." She speaks of the important role of theater in Greek culture, but adds that the African performances are also a kind of local theater. "Theater is the remains of rites," she says, "there's a continuity." We walk over to a square wooden Eskimo mask with a circular hole in each of its four corners and a seal relief-carving in the front middle. Natan explains that the shaman dances with the mask out on a frozen body of water to call up the spirit of the seals, until he places it face up on the ice. Then each of four hunters stabs one of the corner holes with his fishing spear. The shaman lifts the mask and, using the four holes as guides, cuts a circle in the ice. He then calls forth the real seals for the hunters. "Just because it's simple," says Natan, "doesn't mean it's shallow. It's deep but in a straightforward way. And this is somehow a kind of root of art." To reflect this root, Natan has also included in the exhibition a number of modern and contemporary artworks that deal with the notion of masks. Among them are photo works by Man Ray, Kimiko Yoshida and Lorna Simpson, sculpture by Erez Israeli and Tom Otterness, a painting by Dganit Berest and a video-documented performance by Hadas Ophrat. "In art we say that you put your whole soul, mind and spirit into the material," observes Natan. "Masks are a literal version of this. Maybe they are the source of this idea." The sculpture by Israeli, a concrete cast of a ski mask laying face down with a stuffed sparrow positioned on it, creates a slightly different relationship to the idea of a mask. "It's a mask worn by terrorists," says Natan, "and is meant less to change a person than to conceal their identity." But there's still the connection with death, and the result is that the terrorist is turned into the "ultimate other." THE MAN Ray piece, Noire et Blanche (Black and White), shows the face of a white-skinned woman alongside a black African mask, a work that deals with identity as well as the relationship between the exotic and the self. The works by Lorna Simpson, showing the back side of several masks, also reflect on identity, in this case as related to her African American background. It reminds us that the mask-object has a two-sided basic aspect - the front side in which others meet our new face, as well as the back side in which we come face-to-face with ourselves. The photograph by Japanese-born French artist Kimiko Yoshida was part of her 2006 solo exhibit at the Israel Museum, in which she photographed herself wearing different masks from the museum's collection. Called The Neolithic Bride, 9,000 years before present, Self-portrait, it incorporates the second oldest mask believed to have been found. Looking closely, we see the white form of an eye in one of the eyeholes, and understand that what looked like a photo of just a mask is actually a person wearing the mask and yet almost completely effacing herself from the image. The placement of Yoshida wearing the neolithic mask in the entrance hall outside the main space is an important aspect of the exhibition's structure, which ends in a separate dark room with a real specimen - the oldest found mask, dating back to the seventh millennium BCE. Its simplicity - two eyeholes, high cheekbones, a small pointed nose and a mouth hole with carved teeth - is as absorbing as it is haunting. Behind the mask is a final projector screening the text of a story belonging to the Dogon people: The First Mask. As the story goes, in the beginning there was no death. Old people simply turned into serpents, losing the language of the living and taking up the language of the spirit. Once, after an old man became a serpent, he accidentally spoke the language of the living and his soul left the serpent, leaving behind the first death. Later, a woman gave birth to a child with brown skin and red spots and it was decided that the man's spirit had entered the child. To draw the man's soul out of the child, the elders created a serpent mask and danced like their ancestral gods. The man left the boy and went into the mask - bringing about the first funeral. "A mask is not just a piece of wood," concludes Natan. Not only can it be made from many other materials - feathers, hair, paint, bone, stone, plaster, shell - but it's a construction that has to hold together through intense physical movement. And a person who wears even the simplest mask undergoes a dramatic transformation, calling into themselves all kinds of outside spirits, from trees and animals to dead persons. "It mixes physical and spiritual needs." The exhibit "Many Faces" is now on show at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, through mid-August. For more information, call (02) 670-8811. Main museum hours - Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday 4 p.m.-9 p.m., Friday and holiday eves 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday and holidays 10 a.m.-5 p.m.


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