Ruben is not a man easily given over to feelings of despair, but a profound weariness now settles over him – on top of the extra blanket, on top of the already too-hot layer of flannel sheet and down duvet – as he watches the sun struggling to penetrate the grey cloud mass outside. He woke up at his usual time of six am, and gets up to open the curtains facing his bed. On his way there his shoulder brushes a mask hanging on the side of a tall cupboard, and he quickly steadies its swaying motion with his hand. The tip of the mask’s nose presses cold into the centre of his palm as, for a brief moment, he smothers its smooth ceramic features.
On a cloudless day the left cheek of the mask would by now flush a gentle pink, and he likes to watch the familiar face turn towards him, through a trick of light and shadow. He made this mask many years ago, of the face of the woman he was living with then; a geology student who laughed easily and always had a bit of dope stashed away somewhere at the back of her underwear drawer.
Reuben and Sue in happier times
But her cheek will not blush today, and Ruben closes his eyes as he gets back into bed, immediately entering a memory of a dream he had the previous night. A chill now spreads up his legs, an almost flu-like fever. Unlike Sue-of-the-mask, he has no interest in his dreams and routinely discards them as the useless by-product of information overload. Outside it has started to rain, and the sound soothes Ruben’s eyes closed. Once more, he enters the dream. He is inside a large warehouse with a railway track running through it. Crates are stacked against the brick walls of the vast space, as well as cardboard boxes, opened and unopened. A few tables. Nests of shredded paper are visible everywhere, spilling from the boxes and even stuck between the dark wooden sleepers of the track. Ruben strains to identify a loud rumbling sound, and soon a large goods train thunders into the warehouse. The proportions of the warehouse are instantly reduced to that of a dolls’ house as the roof of the train scrapes the high ceiling when it screeches to a halt. The doors slide open and several men in white overalls begin to offload the cargo. More boxes and crates, and several wrapped oval cocoons.
Ruben becomes aware of a woman standing at one of the trestle tables at the very end of the room, busy unpacking what seems to be trashy items made of plastic and other gaudy rubbish. Her features are blurred. She now carefully lifts several exquisite porcelain masks from their bubbled plastic and he watches hopelessly as a man enters – the train, he also notices, has since departed – and claims the masks, thrusting a piece of paper as payment into the woman’s hands.
“Masks were of great importance in ancient Japan from the point of performing rituals and also in plays. The different characters or creatures depicted with the help of these masks include common people, deities, ghosts, heroes, animals and devils. Earliest of the Japanese masks were made from cloth or clay. Masks were used in Japan from 10,000 B.C. Apart from use in plays and rituals, the masks were also used to cover faces of deceased ones. The belief/use of masks to deflect malevolent spirits was also common in ancient times.”
Ruben kicks his legs free from the warm tangle of the top sheet and gets out of bed. He feels irritated by his dream, and his unexpected need to find some meaning. Under the shower, he suddenly recalls that he often dreams of stations, and of waiting trains, and of never being on the right platform of the departing one; always watching with a desperate anxiousness as it departs without him. He laughs at the clichéd and obvious symbolism: not missing the boat then, mate, he thinks, for some reason you’re always missing that one very specific train that would take you to where you need to be.
While shaving, he recalls the contours of Sue’s face as he prepared it for the making of her mask, cleaning her skin with broad strokes before smearing an alginate mixture, manufactured from kelp, over her closed mouth and eyes and down the side and bridge of her nose, and then over her cheeks and forehead. A thin red scarf held her dark hair back, and two empty yellow Bic pens were inserted in her nostrils, held in place by small clay worms. Unlike some of his other clients, she had no problem breathing through her nose, probably because she was a strong swimmer, and, of course, she trusted him.
He briefly wonders if he shouldn’t start making these birthday masks again, recalling the thrill of removing the plaster cast – once it had dried inside the mould – to examine its sleeping alabaster features.
Sue found his hobby ‘creepy’, especially when he started making extra casts for his own collection (always with the permission of his clients), lining the blank faces up on the walls of the narrow passage that linked his living quarters to his studio. “I suspect you prefer your women captive,” she accused one day, “with their eyes and mouths shut.”
He protested that he was hardly to blame if few, if any, men felt a need to possess a personal facemask. If anything, he tried to explain, these masks are beyond gender, and therefore outside any feminist paradigm she would like to employ. And what she sees as passive surrender, he explained, he chooses to see as asexual expressions of serene tranquillity. Sue was never convinced. And on that last, brutal day together, he came home to find his entire collection smashed on the floor of the passage, except for the copy he had made of her mask.
He now wonders if she has kept hers.
I feel for Reuben. I know what it feels like to wake up in the slipstream of an inscrutable dream, but unlike him, I always have to know What It Means. It’s personal and private work – no-one can interpret your dreams for you – and the meanings of mine are often embarrassingly simplistic. Or else I’m just getting very good at reading my own mind. Interpreting and integrating my dream reality into ‘normal’ waking reality – the present tense of living – is vital to the process of creating my work. And dreaming the dream about Ruben dreaming, I thought about masks. I don’t, as a general rule, like to be in the presence of tribal masks and can’t understand why some people feel compelled to collect them. Don’t they know how powerful masks are? Are they aware of what – and who– they’re inviting in? During most mask ceremonies, the dancers go into deep trance to communicate with his ancestors, in the hope of receiving messages of advice and wisdom.
Maybe tribal rituals need to respected and not collected as interior decorating trophies?
Need I say more?
I have three masks in my house – the one given to me by my daughter is not so much a mask, as a lovely wooden carving of a face, its features asleep, or benignly absentminded. The second one is by ceramic artist, Clementina van der Walt; a sleepy-eyed face of a man I pass every day on my way to do my laundry. I love how his eyes seem to follow me down the passage.
My mask looks different to these two examples, but I like them too.
The third mask I own is a modern copy of a belly mask from the Makonde tribe, Southeastern Tanzania. I love the fecund shape of this carved wooden torso; its navel a protruding nub.
Below is an image of an authentic mask of that region – and the difference to mine is tangible, even just looking at the image. The authentic mask is power-full in a way that my mass-produced copy is not. Isn’t it sad that the mask below now hangs in a gallery or private home somewhere, and not in the heart of the tribe that created it?
I quote from this excellent website (if collecting African artifacts is your thing): “The earliest Makonde body masks were collected by German and Portuguese explorers in the late 19th Century. They were relatively crudely carved and rather flat. Nevertheless they had great spirit and much to recommend with their bold details rendered with bee’s wax and elegant proportionality. A hundred years later body masks are still in use. Styles have come and gone over the years. Wax details have been abandoned and the form has been made more three dimensional. The masks are never polished and are usually colored with local earth colors. They are bound with cloth to a male dancer who uses additional robes to flash the audience for the character he plays is a loose woman who has been impregnated by an unknown man. His movements are vigorous, even violent. The audience can be badly behaved. Authentic, used masks such as this will show their wear.”
Africa is home to a great variety of mask styles and uses. The one that captures my imagination most – maybe because it features so close to home in Cape Town’s annual 300-year old Coon Carnival – is the Coon Mask, first used during the celebrations of liberated slaves. Their colonial masters found these comical, smiling disguises and the accompanying partying scandalous and distasteful, but they allowed slaves to vent all the pent up frustrations without being identified, hence no punishment.
A familiar sight to thousands of Capetonians
I must admit to feeling a bit lost inside my own musings on masks. And what it has to do with my process of making art, I cannot yet fathom.
Maybe it all started (after waiting for an hour at the doctor’s, paging through a pile of magazines) with a sudden awareness that advertising mascara is big business.
Which malevolent spirits are we trying to defect?