Unravelling the mask

November 22, 2020

Long before Covid-19, humans had used masks for various purposes. In the Roman period, death masks were made to preserve the likeness of departed souls


“The only mask I’m wearing is the mask of time,” announces Mother Gin Sling, a character in Juan Marse’s novel Shanghai Nights. This was, of course, prior to Covid-19. Nowadays, we are all wearing masks of all types — from a cheap clinical one to a designer’s product, from one made out of simple cloth to a diamond studded piece.

Although, the spread and persistence of coronavirus is frightening, sometimes fatal, it has opened new aspects in our routine and repetitive existence.

Masks have become a regular feature of our face. The surgical mask that covers half the face has become such a normal layer of our identity that we don’t miss seeing lips, teeth, and chin or their movement during a conversation, a laugh, or a moment of grief. We are not witnessing, in the words of Juan Gabriel Vasquez, “the miracle of the human face, which with so few tools can transmit more emotions than we’ve learned to name”. On the other hand, we may be saving on lipsticks and aftershave lotions, while buying stacks of face masks from medical stores and fashion outlets.

Long before the coronavirus, humans had used masks for various purposes. In the Roman period, death masks were made to preserve the likeness of departed souls. These masks were put in the descendants’ or followers’ residences as their replacement, just as we put up photographs of deceased family members or public leaders on the walls and mantels of our houses. Much like Egyptian sarcophagi with the painted face and body of mummies inside the box.

In primitive cultures, masks served to assume a new identity or invite another entity — to transform living beings momentarily into the soul of an ancestor, a clan’s guardian spirit, a friendly animal or some benevolent ghost. This act, actually a community ritual, was about abandoning one’s individuality and embracing another persona. The same is seen in contemporary rites, for instance in masquerade balls, fancy-dress parties, Halloween celebrations and flag-smeared faces in sports stadiums etc.

Wearing a mask is not just physical, it is managed through other means too. Often a mask is not visible but felt and is hence inseparable. Actors of Japanese Noh theatre are supposed to cover their faces with masks while performing on stage so that the audience should not mix their features with those of characters they are impersonating. But the master actors don’t conceal their faces. They don’t need to, because transformation is so powerful and complete that everyone looking at the actor, is believing the character. It happens in cinema as well. A viewer watching Shah Rukh Khan’s movie is well aware of the superstar’s immense wealth, yet sympathises with the slum-dweller being portrayed.

Actors put on invisible masks that are so convincing that their true self cannot be traced. Ordinary folk also use masks: one facial-cover for appearing in front of parents; another one at work place; yet another for friends and a special sort for lovers.

In the world of art, artists often place a mask on their models and subjects; not in a literal sense but through their style, skill and inventions. The identity of the man or woman painted by Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio or Velasquez is less important than the creator’s. Those faces are eternally stuck with masks bearing the names of their artists. Even if an artist is rendering a self-portrait, the image is not a ‘real’ depiction. It is a transitory representation/layer, altered with time and state of mind. Hence the self-portraits of Van Gogh, produced in different periods and conditions, appear to be pictures of different personages.

In primitive cultures, masks served to assume a new identity or invite another entity — to transform living beings momentarily into the soul of an ancestor, a clan’s guardian spirit, a friendly animal, some benevolent ghost.

The conflict between the face and the mask continues in the recess of our mind. Where does the face recede, and when does the ‘image’ overtake it? An image that can be interpreted as a mask usually manifests in our photographs, resumes, personal histories. On many occasions, you don’t show your face; you send your biodata, details of your past projects, letters of reference from your colleagues and superiors. Whether picked or rejected, the decision is made on the basis of a mask composed of words.

In works of art, sometimes the true self of artists is presented, but often alter egos or parallel personalities (stock of masks we possess) are portrayed. There are numerous examples in literature, but in visual arts, Cindy Sherman’s photographic prints, in which the artist documents herself as another, conflicting character is a good example. A similar approach is evident in the art of Pushpamala with the artist posing in different appearances — as a goddess, a popular heroin, a native woman and other icons in multiple situations and surroundings. Likewise, Amber Hammad transforms herself into individuals from art history. Nusra Latif Qureshi created Did You Come Here to Find History? (2009), in which, according to Hans Belting, “As a symbol of her official identity, she superimposed her own passport photo onto a transparent film strip of digital prints…, placing her own likeness over… profiles of the Mogul period.”

In all these works, even if it is the same face, you tend to believe that it is blended into another role — of a Mughal emperor, a Hindu goddess, a native Indian woman, a movie stereotype, etc.

Whether it’s African ritual masks (that emerged as a vital element in the art of Picasso and his European contemporaries), Indian religious masks during various pujas, masks for carnivals in Rio de Janeiro or Notting Hill in London; humans have always adopted masks for purposes that have varied levels of significance and relevance.

The clinical masks seem to be a great cleansing object — an equaliser of sorts. These small artefacts have altered our long-guarded values, standards and customs. A practical facial mask to protect from Covid-19, has a unique identity. It is beyond gender segregation, age limit, or measurement/weight category; it’s also far from cultural identification or religious association. It has nothing to do with national identity or class hierarchy. A mask worn by a street vendor in Multan may not be different from that of a millionaire living in Manhattan. The mask actually masks all differences making us realise that in the times of crisis features of your identity do not matter or withstand; proving what EH Gombrich wrote years ago: “We see a mask before we recognise the face”.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

Unravelling the mask