Masks – Ancient & Modern

By Bernie Bell

Annie called by – folk can call by now – thanks to the ease-up in Covid restrictions.  Annie came by, and we walked and talked, then she came in and, with masks going up and down, had a cuppa.

After months of my not going anywhere where there are people, it is good to be able to see people again – other than our neighbours!  Who are fine folk, but – it’s good to be able to stretch out a bit.  I just hope that we can continue on an upward road in Orkney.

During lockdown, I’ve had exchanges, some very strong exchanges, with folk over t’Internet, but it really isn’t the same as meeting up, and talking.  Our conversation turned to …masks.  We started by talking of the spirit animals and totems of some cultures, I’ve mentioned this before, in these pieces in TON…

From this, our conversation moved to the masks which Shaman make and wear, to connect with their own, or their tribes, spirit animals, and Annie proved to be a fount of information!  Though emphasising that she is absolutely NOT an expert on this topic, she has  been strongly influenced by the art of tribal cultures since childhood, and, to me, what she had to say on the subject, had much of interest, in many ways.  Not only about masks, but about a way of living and of seeing and interacting with the life around us, which may be fast disappearing in the modern world.

Probably best if I just quote the lady herself:

“I grew up in the boreal forest of the USA in a super outdoorsy family with deep roots. We burned wood, ate game and what we did for fun sounds like hard work to some. My grandparents were warm and curious people who took retirement travel to the max, and boarded a tramp steamer one day and were gone for years. They had a “fun room” in their house crammed with hunting trophies, a real Victrola, Navajo rugs, yellow-spined Geographics and cultural ethnographies, carved boats, bark canoes, kayak models that smelled of smoke, bone tools, cornhusk dolls, stone lamps and a fascinatingly terrible Ojibwe mask that hung in front of a light that had real hair (hopefully from a horse?), antlers and fur.

So my attraction to indigenous art seems inherited along with the travel gene. Childhood stories of pioneers comingled with awareness of those displaced. The importance of shapeshifting animals—tricksters, helpers, heroes—in legends of native peoples are represented in both every-day and spiritual objects and symbolise the sky, earth, water and cycle of life. Medicine wheels (like mandalas) and ceremonial masks really only need to be seen once to make a lasting impression.

Masks can be transportive, soulful, silly, ferocious and fantastical, and in any case must be respected as sacred ornaments. In most indigenous cultures they’re worn for rights and rituals, including dance.  When you put on the face of the Raven, Bear, Orca, etc, you channel the power and protection of the animal or spirit it represents. You become a messenger.

During the long dark last winter, different Hopi kachinas I’d seen in the desert southwest of the US (maybe because I was dreaming of hot dry places?) kept popping into my head, and I started doodling them. The owl came first—it’s no surprise the owl generally symbolises wisdom throughout the world—probably because I can always use advice. “

Painting of owl mask credit

Credit: Annie Getchell

Annie also made imaginative use of a piece of an old creepie stool  which she found on a beach –  she added the wings of a long-dead bird, and – with Annie channelling the spirit animal – they became an owl…

Owl made from beach found wood credit:  Annie Getchell

Credit: Annie Getchell

And here we have  Andrew Appleby,  President of the John Rae Society  – channelling  the spirit of fun by donning an Inuit mask made of bone, at a Hall of Clestrain open day….

whalebone mask Bell

Another aspect of masks – to make us smile.

Cosmetics/make up can become a mask – a person can look astoundingly different when they wash off the layers of foundation cream, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick.  People say “I’m going to put my face on.”  And they do just that.

There are the physical masks people make and wear for various reasons – sometimes to disguise their features, as with the Venetian Masquerade balls of the 14 – 17th Centuries , and the ‘masks’ that people wear, in their lives, to disguise their true personalities or intentions. Sometimes, the use of physical disguise, and disguise of intent, overlap.

We’re seeing a lot of ‘masks’ worn by people in power, in these times.  What you see, or hear, is definitely not what you get.

And, of course, there are the masks which we now all need to wear to protect ourselves, and others.  They do make it difficult to ‘read’ a persons face and expressions –  but that’s a small price to pay.

And – the eyes can still say a lot, especially if they’re smiling.

Bernie Bell with face mask on



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5 replies »

  1. An interesting article Bernie. I find even newish modern masks appear to have a sort of life of their own. I used to have two on a wall which I took down because they were too disconcerting.

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