What’s Behind a Mask?

My first encounter with tribal masks came in Indonesia on the island of Bali.  At the time I had no particular interest in the genre, but all that changed when my brother in the U.S.  asked me to find him a Rahwana mask.  With wild hair, bulging multi-colored eyes, gaping mouth and outstretched, ornamented tongue, Rahwana, is a memorable sight.  Rahwana is the Balinese version of Ravana, the demon who kidnaped virtuous Sita and set in motion the Hindu epic, The Ramayana.

Not knowing much about any of this at the time, I looked at many Rahwana specimens in the tourist town of Kuta Beach.  They seemed cheap and kitsch.  They had all the elements my brother had described but the sum was not more than the parts; there was no art to them.

I soon learned that if I wanted a “real” Rahwana mask I should go upcountry to the small village of Ubud where craftsman and carvers were to be found.  I entered a recommended wood carver’s shop and was immediately struck by a large Rahwana mask sitting on a bench.  I say struck, for it was as if something hit me.  Invisible yet tangible, an energy flew out of the wild eyes.  It was arresting, scary and beautiful all at the same time.

In my limited Indonesian I asked the carver to tell me about this mask.  The first thing he said was that it was not for sale.  With the help of an interpreter I got the full story.

The mask had just returned from the forest and was on its way to a repository where it would wait to be used in a temple dance.  The village shaman had taken the mask to a special place in the forest until it became imbued with the spirit which it represents.  When the shaman determined that it was no longer an inanimate piece of wood, but now a living thing he had brought it back to the village.

The carver showed me a mask on the other side of his shop which was identical.  This one is for sale he announced with pride.  It was stunning just like the other one, but I have to admit that it didn’t quite have the magic.

The difference between the masks, was that on the mask for sale there was an almost imperceptible error which had been made intentionally.  On this mask the tiny chip was behind one of the ears.  This chip made the difference in whether the mask went to the forest with the shaman or was to be sold to a collector.

I say collector, for it is this type of quality art, all but identical to ceremonial pieces which knowledgeable western collectors usually come upon.  This is in distinction to consecrated masks for temple use which generally never leave the village, and the common cheapies made for the tourist trade.

So there are three levels of masks:

1–Those made for use

2–Those made for sale which are quality art, all but identical to the fine pieces made for use, and often made by the same carvers who make the traditional use masks

3–Inexpensive tourist trinkets

In reality these categories are more complicated.  With West African masks, for example, Western market demand has created competition among artist.  Ironically some of the most innovative and highest quality masks are those made for sale, while the traditional use masks may be less artful.

And now with war, and young people selling off the things they inherit seeking a better life in Europe or America some things are being sold in the collecting market which were not meant to leave the village.

I had tea with the wood-carver and purchased the “imperfect” Rahwana mask for my brother.  As I left the shop I was all too aware of being watched.  The carver had gone back to his table.  The not for sale Rahwana took me in; from its bulging eyes which were spinning and psychedelic something ancient looked out.

My brother’s mask hangs on the wall of his Boston apartment.  It is the highlight of his room.  Though I find it difficult to take my eyes from it, I do not feel as though it watches me.  It does not have the magic of the other Rahwana, but thanks to the skill and masterful execution of the artist, it has the imprint of magic.  It is more than the sum of its parts–it is a work of art.


2 Responses to What’s Behind a Mask?

  1. Tom Chiola says:

    I just purchased a mask thatt looks like the one you describe here. Can I send you a photo for you to identify which of the three levels of mask types. I bought it in a thrift shop and the owner told me it came from the mome of a woman who lived in Indonesia. I’ll send you a photo. Thanks.

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