Charlotte, head of The Masketeer's notes that people come to her workshops with two common assumptions. Firstly, they believe themselves to be uncreative, and secondly, they see masks as something to hide behind. I too, initially, believed that to make and wear a mask was to hide. I also believed that the importance was in the end result and what it symbolized. On both accounts I was wrong. The mask's greatest power, I now realize, is in fact its ability to reveal, and the process of making it, just as important.
The anthropologist Rapport, who wrote extensively on ritual, noted that masks do not always disguise, they often transform and actually display identity. They "coordinate the iconicity, the signs of identity in any particular cultural context." Rather than conceal, they become an agent of revelation.
It is a very personal revelation. An individual's totem mask is a symbolic identity. Meyer Fortes, a psychologist and anthropologist, reminds us that this identity or 'personhood', is a collection of characteristics which in many cultures is not just attributed to humans, but also animals and supernatural beings. It makes perfect sense then that mask makers so often use animals or forms from nature to display aspects of their inner identity.
So what is happening in the brain when we see a mask? The Fusiform Face Area (FFA) is the part of the brain which processes facial recognition. It processes the visual information from a face not just to create a physical image but also to quickly help the observer to identify origins, emotional tendencies and social context. Interestingly, this part of the brain is active not just when looking at faces, but also when viewing a range of familiar cultural objects. It suggests that the brain is adapted to reading more than just a physical face when interpreting a mask decorated with forms and shapes, even inorganic ones. Thus their ability to to facilitate social communication should not be underestimated. Tonkin, who studied masks within ritual, described masking as a "richly concentrated means of articulating power with an important communicative function"
So, the product of a mask making can reveal the inner identity of the creator. It is a powerful tool of communication. But just as important and not to be forgotten is the making process itself.
Psychology has long regarded creative play - the process of creating something new and unusual from familiar objects - as vital to a child's development, but it is now recognized to be important in adults too. The freedom of expression is deemed necessary for emotional freedom, development and well-being.
Research has shown that creativity and play increases empathy, strengthens social connections and helps the brain develop in a way that improves high level reasoning and problem solving. Mask making as a process embodies all aspect of this creative play. At the end of the masking workshops I have witnessed, individuals leave with a new sense of empowerment, freedom and self awareness.
The creative process on a neural level involves a dynamic interaction of several different areas of the brain involved with cognition. We now know that the brain is 'plastic' and changeable, even in adult life. By allowing you brain think in a creative, non-habitual way, you can actually force it to create new neural pathways. Not only does this allow you a way to develop as a person, it also reduces the aging of the brain. Play is necessary to develop and sustain us on both an emotional and biological level. As George Bernard Shaw stated, "we don't stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing."
Much of the writing on masks focuses on their power and importance at the level of society. But perhaps it is more interesting, as the work of the Masketeer's explores, to consider masks on a more personal level : the importance of your mask to you, what it allows you to reveal and communicate. And finally, I believe we must never forget the importance of the making itself; it allows you to play, imagine, create and be free.
Photographs courtesy of The Masketers
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