You might not think that a baseball catcher's face protector, an approximately 7,000-year-old facial shroud from the Middle East and Darth Vader's helmet would have a lot in common. But they're all examples of masks that have been used for wildly varying purposes since the dawn of civilization (I've always wanted to use that phrase). The common thread among them all -- and nearly 140 other examples on display from across the globe -- will become clear in the exhibit "Masks: Faces of Culture" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Originally curated and shown at the Saint Louis Art Museum, the exhibit boasts an impressive array of masks as well as examples of how, for millennia, humans have used them for spiritual or physical protection, entertainment or just plain ole disguise. There's a lot of wild, outrageous stuff that puts to shame much of what is paraded around on All Hallow's Eve. "In our culture, we're most familiar with masks for Halloween or Mardi Gras, but this exhibit shows how [limited] that view is," notes Anne-Louise Schaffer, who is overseeing the show for the MFA. "Throughout history, masks were not donned frivolously as they are today. They were worn for serious purposes."
Not that the show isn't a lot of fun. All manner of headgear juts from the museum's walls in freakish glory: bizarre-looking animal masks used in religious rituals, battle masks for human slaughter, witch masks to ward off evil spirits, and gas masks to avoid poisonous fumes. More than 30 of the masks feature the accompanying full-body armor or costume. Videos and scenic reproductions (like a life-size facsimile of a Paleolithic cave drawing from 17,000 years ago) also give each face covering a more complete context.
Though these items cover a large time span, the exhibit focuses on head adornments used in five specific contexts: rites of passage (birth, puberty, death); rituals of renewal (change of seasons, deity pleasing); men as women; theater; and offense/defense (protection against evil spirits and human foes). The latter category is of particular interest to Schaffer, who never thought to organize masks for medieval battle, a hockey game and walking on the moon in the same category. "My definition of masks has definitely expanded. I also especially like the witch masks. A lot of them are pretty [weird]-looking." One example is a Dzonoqua mask of the Kwakwaka'wakw people in Canada. Dzonoqua is the mythic Wild Woman of the Woods who is feared because she kidnaps and eats children. And you thought the Blair Witch was creepy
In addition to the show itself, there are a number of related activities, including lectures, family events and children's workshops, in which the little tykes can build their own masks based on what they've seen in the exhibit. "When a child puts on, say, a mask of Cinderella or a devil during Halloween, they act differently," Schaffer says, adding that changing one's identity temporarily -- and the freedom to behave differently in the process -- is an integral aspect to and appeal of the mask.
And no, don't even ask if you can try one on. Not only might you damage an irreplaceable museum piece, you could unwittingly unleash the fury of Dzonoqua.
"Masks: Faces of Culture" opens Sunday, June 25, and runs through September 17 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. Admission is $5 for adults and $2.50 for children, students and seniors. For more information, call (713)639-7300.