Masks, which are ancient symbols of power and transcendence, have played large roles in explaining the mysteries of life within various cultures. They have often been involved in spiritual rituals, celebrations, and protection. Modern society has also altered the needs and uses of masks in current times, but regardless of the changes, traditional uses of masks have unrelentingly stayed relevant.
Shaman traditions in several cultures have used masks as instruments for obtaining wisdom, protection, guidance, and healing. Ancient African traditions, for instance, used masks in rituals to communicate with spirits. Some Native American tribes would use masks for healing purposes by wearing large masks to scare evil spirits away and heal the afflicted person. In Egypt, masks are placed upon their deceased as part of the burial ceremony. These burial masks are intended to protect the soul of the deceased as it makes its way to the spirit world and are typically painted gold with gems embedded in them. Masks have a long history of playing various parts in different cultures.
Within many cultures, however, storytelling is prominent use of masks. In ancient Greece, actors wore masks with specific expressions carved into them to help illustrate the feelings each character experienced. On top of that, the masks were extremely large to help the audience members sitting high up in the theater to see. Indonesia, similarly, has a history of using masks as a form of storytelling while dancing. Features of the masks in Topeng dance, as this type of Indonesian dance is called, each have their own meanings. For example, characters with noble backgrounds wear masks that are painted white or gold, while lower class characters get less beautifully painted masks. Just like costumes are curated for certain types of characters, masks are as well.
Nowadays, masks are still used in storytelling sometimes, but also are used in a wider variety of ways. From theater to Halloween to art creation, masks play a more passive role in modern society than they have in the past. Masks are typically reserved for a small number of theater shows, Halloween costumes, protection, and decoration. Shows and costumes use masks to portray characters, similar to how they enhanced character’s expressions in ancient Greece. In terms of protection, present day doctors, laborers, artists, firefighters, and many other types of workers use masks to protect their faces from getting injured, spreading illnesses, or inhaling toxic substances.
In regards to decoration, one can often find an ancient, traditional looking mask hanging on the wall of someone who visited the country it originated in, or simply saw it in a store and thought it looked cool. On the other hand, many artists find masks interesting to create and paint because there is so much that can be done with them. They can be created from a myriad of materials and created to be representational of nearly anything. From a human face to that of an animal, a mask can be made in any way.
One art field that works with masks especially well is art therapy. Art therapy is a type of therapy that uses art mediums during the therapy session to help the client express, process, and communicate their thoughts and emotions. Within the realm of art therapy, masks are useful for enabling us to become what we are not and express wishes, fears, and fantasies. In thinking about identity, masks can be useful to help someone think about their own identity or create a personality and history specifically for the mask. Relationships could also be explored in creating more than one mask, each symbolizing a different person in the relationship. They can foster feelings of empowerment, vulnerability, desire, fear, and so much more.
Overall, masks are a great way to explore identity and relationships, as well as provide ways to communicate, connect, and protect people. Throughout history, masks have evolved, yet persisted in their functions. They have continually supported cultures in traditional ways, but also became more than what they were originally used for. Masks are powerful and with that, comes the need to understand and appreciate them.