Beyond the mask (2020)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

This week I want to write about my most recent passions, that is the exploration of mask possession. I have for a very long time been collecting masks on my walls, but it is when they come to life that things start to become really interesting – because they give permission to experience the world through a new set of eyes, and therefore also myself. I’ve seen people spotlighting limiting beliefs and self-doubts, some that are as old as themselves, and completely altering their attitude towards them, by wearing a new face. And it is playful and fun, but still profoundly therapeutic. My most important source of inspiration for this empowering work is Keith Johnstone and Steve Jarand, and to them, I’m ever thankful.

Let me first shortly talk about the fundamental mechanics. Most importantly, the best masks are archetypical, that means that they represent the different aspects of humanity. An excellent example is the masks of the Commedia dell’arte that already in the 16th century Italy formed a complex system of archetypes. The purpose was to understand comedy, and it starts with two base characters – Pantalone, the master, that is old and powerful, but also ugly and corrupted, and he is always troubled by responsibility and politics. And the complete opposite – Zanni, the servant, that is young and beautiful, but also stupid and no one really cares about him. Pantalone then breaks down a few sub-characters, like Il Dottore, the doctor, that has all the knowledge in the world but doesn’t know how to apply it, and Il Capitano, the captain, that looks strong and brave but doesn’t know how to fight. And so it keeps diving until we finally in the middle find the Innamorati, or the lovers, that represents the worldly, every day non-archetypical. To wear a Commedia dell’arte mask can be seen as embracing that archetype, and some actors in this style of theater make it into a lifelong investigation.

The power of a particular mask depends on the culture around it, and that is often very local. My collection includes tribal African work from the Makonde tribe, famous faces from the Japanese Noh theatre, Venitian characters like the plague doctor and Moretta, Christianities seven deadly sins, and of course, the masks from the BDSM and fetish subculture. Wearing a mask is a social endeavour because it depends on how the surroundings know and interact with you. And it can be overwhelming for the ego; when the archetypical traits of the mask drive your interactions more than who you “really” are. And in this way, one gets to play a very defined role, some would say, in the drama of gods, because the idea of gods is by default archetypical. It can be very liberating to experience a side of oneself so clearly. What the mask “does” is that it offers a way to step in and out of the experience. It gives permission and makes it safer to approach sides of oneself from which we usually take distance. I like to see wearing a mask as a ritual because I want to give it the power to posse me. And if I wear it casually, I kind of, discharge that potential.

I see this practice as deeply shamanistic. I once heard a story about a religious gathering in Indonesia, where random people would volunteer to wear the mask of a god. One god with a massive horn was particularly aggressive and would charge into the audience, sometimes hurting careless worshippers. The culture recognized that this aggressive archetype is something that lives inside each of us. And therefore people had no problem understanding the rampaging god. Never would they blame the volunteer wearing the mask, because he, as they expressed it, was possed by the gods, and believers validated that.

What is even more interesting is to create your mask, by actually building it yourself. It is a slow process that often takes me about eight hours with some waiting periods in between. During this time, I get to form a relationship with my mask, and the archetype it represents within me. I like to combine the crafting with theatre exercises to approach the work more emotionally. The most magical movement is when giving birth to the mask by putting it on for the first time, and looking into a mirror. Who will it be looking back at me? My experience is that newly born masks often lack language, and instead communicates with loud noises and wild gestures. It is a process to get to know the newly-born – what objects and activities does it enjoy? – and how it makes friends with other masks. Once enough masks know each other, I can invite them to participate in the theatre exercises. Eventually, they will form a sort of community with its own culture, and then it no longer matters who wears the mask, just like it doesn’t matter who the horned god possed in the Indonesian ceremony.

I find it very therapeutic to see the archetypes that are significant to me being carried by others. It gives me a sense of connectivity and makes my problems feel less overwhelming when I’m not alone with them. I get reminded of this when watching the masks on my walls looking back at me. They offer aggression, innocence, horniess, holiness, servitude, madness, foolishness, decadence, celebration, and so many more experiences. And I know that each specific archetype is only an arms-length away when I feel its calling.