St. Louis Art Museum

The first thing you see on entering Masks: Faces of Culture at the St. Louis Art Museum isn't a mask but the representation of one: a reproduction of a Paleolithic drawing from the caves at Lascaux, France, showing a prostrate man wearing bird-shaped headgear next to a disemboweled bison. The man is possibly a shaman, wearing the bird mask to forge a much-needed connection to the world of spirits, guaranteeing success in the hunt.

After passing through more nearly pitch-black galleries with spotlighted masks appearing to float in deep vitrines, visitors will encounter an elaborately costumed figure standing on a pedestal. The 18th-century costume and mask are made of reindeer skin, cotton and silk, with metal and glass attachments, and belonged to a Siberian shaman who, through communication with the spirit world, would have warded off evil and danger in his community.

The Siberian shaman mask, with its foreboding, gaping mouth and staring eyes, appears to be fixed on another figure a few galleries down: a man standing in a full-body NASA-issue spacesuit. The darkened opacity of his bubble helmet makes eye contact impossible, but he appears to be returning the Siberian shaman's trained gaze.

Canada, Kwakwaka'wakw people, "Transformation Mask," late 19th century, wood and pigment, 16 by 13 by 9 inches
Canada, Kwakwaka'wakw people, "Transformation Mask," late 19th century, wood and pigment, 16 by 13 by 9 inches

These three prominently placed objects are like points on a triangle that contains the entire exhibition, just as they contain many of the pivotal concepts and claims about masks that this exhibition is making. They represent the past, the present and the future of human history, and they foreground the different roles that masks have played within it. The use of this triad of figures is a brilliant organizational device.

Indeed, Masks is a brilliant exhibition, one of the most ambitious shows the St. Louis Art Museum has ever undertaken. Curators Cara McCarty and John Nunley spent six years traveling to roughly 50 different countries to collect more than 100 specimens of masks that bear powerful witness to a variety of enduring practices in human culture. The masks are organized in categories according to these practices: "Origins," "Rites of Passage," "Renewal," "Men as Women," "Theater" and "Offense/ Defense." It's hard to imagine a broader, more complete survey of masks and their various functions in human societies.

McCarty and Nunley have gathered examples of masking that go far beyond the expected. Fortunately they have sidestepped the obvious -- there are no Halloween or Mardi Gras masks here -- in favor of the unusual. It's an exhibition designed to make viewers reconsider what masks are and how they function. A Saudi Arabian woman's veil, shown in the same context as an African initiation mask intended for adolescent boys, certainly invites some thinking on rites of passage and gender. There are masks in this show made of every conceivable material and made for a surprising variety of uses. And one of the show's most brilliant moves has to be the inclusion of "functional" masks, sports masks and protective headgear that we rarely consider in the same context as funerary or theater masks.

With all of this variety, with all of the different cultures and historical periods represented, with all of the wild materials and unbelievable shapes and astounding functions of all of these different masks, why is it that the exhibition ends up seeming so homogenous? A distinctly consistent feel attends this show; it lurks in the background like the hum of a distant machine, but it never goes away. It can't be explained by the banal observation that these are all masks -- objects of a consistent type -- and so consistency is to be expected. And it's not due to the exhibition design, which treats all the objects as roughly equivalent, placing them on stands or pedestals lit with spotlights that keep most of the galleries in darkness.

There's something else at work in this exhibition that accounts for its homogeneity. The effect can be partly explained by looking again at the triad mentioned above -- the Paleolithic birdman-shaman, the Siberian shaman's mask and the astronaut. The connection among them is a labored sense of the "mysterious." As a group, they evoke the unknowable depths of history, the mystical realm of the spirits and the unknown reaches of other worlds. Even the astronaut's helmet, a product of empirical research and scientific engineering, comes off as some kind of shamanic device. This effect -- this aura of mystery, the unknown and the spiritual -- hangs like a veil over every mask in the show.

Undeniably, many of the masks in the show are beyond our understanding, and so they remain, in fact, mysteries to us. We can only guess, for example, that the man represented in the Lascaux cave was a shaman, that his mask was used for ritual purposes. (The word "ritual" itself too often implies mystery; it is usually used to explain patterned behavior we don't quite understand. The "mystery/ritual" association is perhaps best articulated by heavy-metal lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap, who muses about the rituals of the "little children" of Stonehenge: "Nobody knows who they were, or what they were doing.")

Other masks retain a quality of mystery because of their association with death. The exhibition includes phenomenal examples of funerary masks from ancient Egypt, Teotihuacan, China and Peru. One of the most striking objects in the whole show is a 5,000-year-old stone funerary mask from the Middle East, with huge, gaping holes for eyes and a ghastly crescent-shaped smile. It looks like the embodiment of the specter of death itself.

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