Why Masks?
Anthropological remarks on a history of fascination

Download text as PDF (79KB)

Masks don’t talk. Confronted by them in art museums or ethnographical collections, we see nothing more than a surface: two empty eye sockets and a usually open mouth. Their conditions of use, their cultural and material value, cannot be seen in these inanimate faces. If we want to find out about these things, we need to ask someone who has seen a mask in action – during a cultic act, joined to its wearer. But does the wearer really matter? Or does the mask have its own, independent significance? When is a mask of value, and to what degree? When is it a cult object, when is it junk, when is it art? A mask can belong to the spirits or appear in public comedies or healing rituals. It can be both visible and invisible or a face in its own right, and it can obliterate. What does a mask tell us? Let us put this question to anthropology and gain a cursory overview of a few prominent positions.

A mask is the thing it does not represent

A famous anecdote from the life of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss tells of a dark, polished wooden figure representing a North American Tsimshian shaman. Lévi-Strauss, who was living in exile in New York during the war, was offered the figure by a dealer in curiosities. Not convinced of its authenticity, he consulted his friend André Breton, who was confident in matters of taste and advised him to buy it for its “coffee-bean aspect”. The anecdote exemplifies a hybrid curiosity of the time: along with the anthropologists, the surrealists were also interested in so-called primitive art during the 1940s. Both were fascinated by the apparently irrational, the artists for aesthetic reasons, the anthropologists from a desire for analytical insight. While preparing his volume L’Art magique, and lacking ideas, Breton sent various people a questionnaire accompanied by reproductions of works of art that were supposed to be categorised as “more or less magical”. Lévi-Strauss, for whom the expression “magical” had an exact meaning that was part of the anthropological vocabulary, which he did not want to be “stirred into every sauce, so to speak,” refused to participate in such a survey. On the assumption that Breton would certainly be interested in the reactions of a child, he passed the questionnaire on to his seven-year-old son. Breton took this as an affront, and the incident led to a break-up between the two men.

Two masks: one has sculpturally protuberant telescopic eyes, the other empty sockets; one is decorated with feathers, the other with the remains of an animal skin; one is light, the other dark. They are as good as opposites, and yet they belong together. Masks, like myths, have a dialectic relationship to one another. Accordingly they cannot be interpreted in isolation, but only in comparison with other types, which should be understood as transformations of each other. Studying the culture of the Indians of Vancouver Island, Lévi-Strauss investigated the nature of style and how it emerges: “A mask does not exist for itself alone; it assumes the existence of other, real or conceivable, masks apart from itself that could have been selected in its place. (...) A mask is not primarily what it represents, but what it transforms, i.e. deliberately does not represent. As with a myth, a mask denies as much as it affirms. It not only consists of what it says or purports to say, but of what it excludes.” But, Lévi-Strauss goes on to ask, “does this not apply to every work of art? (...) The artist, in his desire for independence, is bound up in a potentially fruitful illusion, but the privilege he grants himself is in no way real. Even if he believes his self-expression to be spontaneous, his work to be original, he is only responding to other creators, whether past or present, known or supposed. Whether we are aware of it or not – no one ever treads the path of creation alone.”

But why masks? Every type of mask has its associated myths, through which it declares its legendary or supernatural origin. The myths establish the role of the mask in ritual, economic life and society. The possession of a mask, or involvement with it, facilitates the acquisition of wealth. The mask appears, for example, in the potlatch, a characteristic element of the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest, denoting various forms of commemoration or celebration of achievement, in which gifts are distributed or thrown into the sea in large quantities. These may be everyday necessities or objects of particular prestige – painted copper plates, for example, that increase in value on each change of owner. Mythical stories and clan legends are performed at such ceremonies the form of masked dances. The masks represent the ancestors in these tales, evil spirits from the woods, fools or animals. Animal masks represent either the totemic beast of a family or a mythical creature. It can happen that animals turn into human beings – elaborately designed folding masks bring about these metamorphoses. The masks are the property of a few aristocratic families and are passed on through inheritance or marriage. They are a source, begetter and symbol of wealth, an agent of the marriage bond and an object of exchange.

The mask as instrument and medium

Michel Leiris, along with others, sees in the mask the central function of metamorphosis, through which it satisfies a basic human need. Nothing is earlier or more eagerly desired than the transcendence of our existential form: “If there is one preoccupation that must be placed towards the fore of human activity in all its diversity, it is disguise. From simple adornment, and the liking for magnificent clothing and uniforms, to theatrical masks and costumes, carnival mummery, the frippery of clowning, women’s makeup and the penitent’s cowl, to totemic ornamentation, tattooing and painting – it certainly looks as if man, scarcely having become conscious of his own skin, had the urgent desire to change it and rush head first into a thrilling metamorphosis that allowed him, through the wearing of another skin, to breach his own boundaries.” In this procedure the mask itself remains abstract. Even when figurative it does not depict and is not bound to naturalism of any kind. The function of the mask is instrumental; for Leiris it is an intermediary between I and You, the self and the non-self. And frequently between the anthropologist and the so-called savage. The fact that the channels of this intermediation may also pass between cultural boundaries must be frustrating to anthropologists. In search of his beloved authenticity, the anthropologist peers into a mirror, expecting the countenance of a stranger. Here is Michel Leiris: “27 October. The mask that at the large recessional after the funeral I had taken to be a ‘marabut’ mask is nothing more than the caricature of a European woman. With her long flowing black hair, divided in the middle of the cranium by an immaculate parting of cowries, her hood of black fibre, her blue boubou and her diary, she represents an enthusiastic tourist who takes notes, gives out banknotes to the dancers, rummages about in every corner, goes into raptures, etc. At the beginning of our stay in Sanga the people hardly dared speak to us. Now they are more acquainted with us, we have been told. Ambibé Babadyi mourns the golden age before the French occupation, when there were many more masks and they were also stronger and more beautiful.” The story of this loss, as Leiris knew from his own experience, is also the story of a great deception. During the famous Dakar-Djibouti exhibition of the 1930s, the anthropologists had secretly made away with masks that had previously been thrown into mask caves and hallowed crevices. The Europeans treated these objects as refuse even though they knew that they were sacred objects. Then they added them to the Paris collections, where this apparent rubbish regained its mystic aura.

Masks of the colonial rulers

Colonialism in Africa brought forth a large number of visual and performance practices that interfered with the project of European sovereignty with biting criticism, humour and empathy. In cultic form the Africans acted out the consequences to them of the importation of modernity and the sense of alienation it brought with it. A distinct performance type examined the figure of the colonial official by parodying his conviction of being able to control his African subjects. While the meaning of this colonial caricature within the African ritual canon was immediately clear to African spectators, it was now the turn of the official to experience alienation. For he was ignorant, and scarcely in the position of being able to decode the criticism being presented in performances at which he was sometimes the guest of honour.

Fritz Kramer analyses African masked comedies as a form of foreign obsession, i.e. as a form of representing the Other in terms of one’s own culture; and as early as the 1920s the anthropologist Julius Lips had interpreted such performances, whose repertoire included colonial officers, missionaries, policemen, tradesmen and other comically portrayed figures, as derision of the “white man”. According to Kramer, however, the mockery in these comedies was not intended for the outsider, but for the foolish behaviour of one’s own people in relation to him. This aim was served, for example, by masks that parodied the key figures of the Catholic cult: Joseph and Mary, both with red faces, Mary as a white woman with full breasts. On the entrance of these masks a song was sung that originally referred to a virility test carried out during a girls’ rite of passage. “She slept with an impotent man” – in the masked comedy this sentence referred to the dogma of the immaculate conception.

Meaningless masks

For Roger Caillois the “problem of the mask [was] neither episodic nor local. It [concerned] the genus as a whole.” Following his early renunciation of surrealism in favour of scientific knowledge, Caillois came to the most radical theory of the mask altogether. His observations of butterfly wings, mimetic insects and stones showed up remarkable parallels to masks. The patterns were the same, revealing a common inventory of forms both human and animal. But to what end? To none. The natural theatre of fascinating imitation and fantastical design, disguise, warning and mimicry – in these things Caillois saw a richness of such excess that it could not be explained by sober advisability. The artistic impulse shows up in the playful, purposeless operations of the natural world as much as it does in the human imagination, freed as it is from the compulsions of instinct. The mask is a part of this impulse: it does not serve to disguise or deceive; it simply creates – as do other natural phenomena – a spectacle. “These transformations, these disguises, for which many more examples could be produced, seem to be beyond all doubt. But why all these parallels, all these imitations, which neither appear helpful to the survival of the species, nor can be attributed to environmental or dietary influences? It all creates the impression of being a fashion to which every species adapts its costume by its chosen means: a ‘slow’ fashion, whose variations exist for millennia, not for a season, and are worn by the species, not the individual. But fashion among humans is also a phenomenon based on mimesis, on an obscure contagion, on the fascination with a gratuitously emulated model. (...) We not only disguise ourselves to hide. We also do so in order to be seen, to flaunt ourselves in borrowed vestments, to seduce or deceive. I must again point out here the prejudice of advisability: the human being deems it advisable for the insect to conceal itself; he is unable to grasp that it might instead flaunt itself.” For Roger Caillois the mask stands for itself. It serves no purpose.

Stefanie Peter



Roger Caillois, Méduse&Cie, Paris 1960

Fritz W. Kramer: Der rote Fes. Über Besessenheit und Kunst in Afrika, Frankfurt/M. 1987

Michel Leiris, Le ‘caput mortuum’ ou la femme de l’alchemiste, Documents, vol. 2, no. 8, 1931

Michel Leiris, L’Afrique fantôme. De Dakar à Djibouti 1931-1933, Paris 1934

Claude Lévi-Strauss, La voie des masques (Les sentiers de la creation), Geneva 1975

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Didier Eribon, De près et de loin, Paris 1988