Friday, December 18, 2009

Masks from the National Museum of Denmark

[post 049]

Copenhagen's NationalMuseet is sponsoring several excellent exhibitions relevant to the climate change summit, including Indians of the Rain Forest; Climate: Denmark from Glaciers to Global Warming; and especially Many Strong Voices, featuring projects and speakers from Arctic and Small Island Developing States who are already struggling with the results of global warning.

During my two visits there, I also found time to tour the superb ethnographic collection and was fascinated by the vast array of masks from indigenous cultures. This is one of those museums where they jam fifty examples of an artifact into one glass display case with minimal explanation. You don't always know exactly what you're looking at, but you do get to experience a rich variety of human expression. It was therefore easy for me to think of many of the masks as being clownesque, even if this was not necessarily their official function.

I only had my Flip video camera with me, and I was shooting through glass and unavoidable glare, but it wasn't a total disaster, as you can see from the shot above and those at the end of the post. First, though, some masks scanned from the museum's publication, Ethnographic Collection: Peoples of the Earth, complete with actual explanations.

Theatre mask. Painted wood
19 cm h.
(Mus. no. CC. 224).
Ca. 1860.
Javanese mask theatre (wayang topeng), like the shadow play, is led by a dalang who recites the plot and conducts the orchestra and actors. The actors' movements and performance of the roles are deliberately impersonal, as they seek to imitate the appearance of shadow puppets. The facial features of the heroes and villains reveal their spiritual qualities. This mask represents a coarse, ungainly demon character — a total contrast to the refined princely mask type. Mask theatre is
limited on Java today, but much more widespread on Bali.

Mask. Wood, rattan, hornbill feathers.
38 cm x 53 cm. (Mus. no. C.6121)
Dayak, Mahakam River, Kalimantan
(Indonesian Borneo). Ca. 1920.

This hudoq mask represents one of the animal spirits central to the ceremonial celebration of the sowing of rice. These spirits were to ensure that the rice spirits were comfortable in the rice paddy and would provide a good harvest. The masks were worn by male dancers dressed in costumes of banana leaves that hid their bodies. During the dance other masked dancers attempted with exaggerated clumsiness to copy the movements of the hudoq dancers and the
dance turned into a comic performance. Rice ceremonies and mask dances are still performed today but on a much smaller scale since the conversion of many Dayak to Christianity or Islam.

Mask. Wood, skin and bone.
2S-5 cm h, 13.7 cm b.
(Mus. no. L19.17S).
Ammassalik, East Greenland. 1933.

Masks were used during some drum dances and originally came from the religious ceremonies held during the winter. The masks represented different spirits. Masks that are more than 100 years old are discarded or buried with the dead. The mask with a skin strap shown here is carved with grooves representing tattoos and a wide mouth representing a stick inserted to puff out the cheeks. The teeth are pieces of bone, and the eyebrows are made of dark, depilated sealskin.

Mask. Woven painted rattan.
49 em h. (Mus. no. 1.3771).
Papua New Guinea. Ca. 1920.
Woven masks covered with coloured clay were traditionally seen as manifestations of demonic spirits. Such masks were worn during the initiation of boys into adulthood and the secret spirit world of the clan that was only accessible to initiated men. During the initiation rites the masks were worn by older men hidden under a cloak of frayed plant fibers to make them look like formidable spirits. Their real identity was not revealed until they removed their masks as part of the ceremony.

Ritual dance costume 330 em h.
(Mus. no. Da.s82a-o).
Tamil Nadu, India. 1894.

Once a year the village goddess is celebrated at a feast for the entire village. When her figure is taken in procession through the streets it is often accompanied by male dancers who possessed by the goddess and wearing masks and women's dress stamp their feet to the rousing
rhythms of drums. Others pierce their cheeks and tongues with long spears or walk on hot coals, after which the village tries to appease the formidable, aggressive goddess by sacrificing chickens and goats.

Mask. Wood, metal.
31 cm h, 21 cm d.
(Mus. no. C.1478).

Karo Batak, Sumatra. Ca. 1900.

Among the Batak of Sumatra masks like this one were worn during the dances and ceremonies at the funerals of influential individuals. The dancers were enveloped in black cloth and held a pair of wooden hands. After performing their dance outside the home of the deceased they escorted the coffin to the burial site. They placed a mask on the grave, presumably in order to keep evil spirits at bay and guide the deceased to the kingdom of the dead. Several years later the deceased was honored with reburial in a sarcophagus or stone urn. Reburial is still common among the Toba Batak today, although now the tomb monuments are made of cement and decorated with both local and Christian symbols.

Shadow puppet (Rawana).
Painted leather, buffalo horn.
64 cm h.
(Mus. no. C.4511 ).
Surakarta, Central
Java. Ca. 1930.
The noblest characters can be identified by their slender form and narrow eyes and noses — the outer symbols of moral and spiritual strength. The coarser figures, like the demon prince Rawana, have round eyes, bulbous noses and often sharp canines. The good characters stand to the right of the puppeteer and the bad characters to the left. The world of shadow play, however, is not only black and white: The villains on the left may also perform heroic deeds for their family and country, whilst the heroes on the right are occasionally driven by lust, the desire
for revenge, and other equally base feelings.

Okay, eau-quais, enough with quality pics and reasonable explanations! Here are those stills extracted from the Flip camera footage. Let your imagination provide the interpretation.

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