Arts, Culture and Masks

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In the spirit of the mandatory wearing of masks in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, Yinka Olatunbosun reviews the roles that masks had played in aspects of history of Arts and culture.

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic, masks had been a part of the human existence and experience. Over the years, its usage served different functions in different spaces. For the Greek theatre, masks were used in the theatre to exaggerate facial expressions, projecting them to the vast audience. Masks also enabled an actor to play different roles since women were initially excluded from performing. Later on, during the Roman gladiatorial contests, masks were worn as protective gadgets and to make the wearer appear more intimidating to the opponent.

In medieval Europe and in Japan, soldiers and samurai wore similarly ferocious-looking protective armour, extending to face-masks. In the 16th century, the Visard was worn by women to protect from sunburn. Masks were part of rituals and ceremonies, mostly won for protection, hunting, feasts, wars and sometimes just for fashion.

As regards rituals, masks may be used to disguise and help to mediate with spirits to offer protective role. For those who are familiar with Kwagh-hir theatre of the Tivs, masks are essential part of the performances which hinge on puppetry and masquerades.

Now, drawing upon the Benin culture, the famous Queen Idia mask conveyed a sense of history, a sentiment shared by the artist, Victor Ehikhamenor in his recent Instagram post with the title, “We Mask Therefore We Are.” Simply put, the masks defined the Benin people. Although Queen Idia, mask rendered in different media had been removed from the palace of the Oba Of Benin, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi during the 1897 British punitive expedition of the Benin Kingdom. The mask had been made in honour of the dead queen mother which the king wore on his hip during special ceremonies. Fast forward to the major international festival held in Lagos, Nigeria, from January 15 to February 12, 1977 namely World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, the emblem of the iconic event was Queen Idia mask- a replica of the original ivory mask was made by Erhabor Emokpae for FESTAC 77. Meanwhile, a lot has been said about this particular mask as it is believed to have served as amuletic container.

Given the roots of masks in arts and popular culture across world civilizations, it may not be out of place to say that the modern medicine learnt from the arts on how to mask for protection.