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Unmasked!

MFA exhibit uncovers the secrets behind our facial disguises

In Offense/Defense we see man's attempt to mask himself for physical, spiritual and psychological reasons. The Japanese Somen mask was developed in the 16th century during a time of civil war. Firearms had been introduced in 1543 via a shipwrecked Portuguese trader, necessitating further developments in armor. Fiercely grotesque, the Somen masks were designed for protection and to inspire terror in the enemy; the psychological side effect, of course, was to create an invincible persona for the samurai who wore them. Today's hockey masks operate under a similar set of principles. They protect the player from flying pucks, but they also present an intimidating and dehumanized appearance to the opponent, an image of invincibility that can inspire the player as well. The similar offensive and defensive functions of the mask call to mind the ritualized ways in which professional sports mimic warfare -- loyalties, rivalries and the drama of combat.

It's spooky and it's kooky: A 7,000-year-old funerary mask from the Middle East.
Museum of Fine Arts
It's spooky and it's kooky: A 7,000-year-old funerary mask from the Middle East.

The exhibition's installation becomes a little strung out as it runs across a series of galleries in the back of the Caroline Weiss Law building. Awkwardly bisected by a museum shop with mask-related merchandise, the show jolts you from viewer to consumer mid-exhibit. There are a host of compelling and provocative objects in the exhibition, but they would be better served by a warmer installation. Whether a budgetary or aesthetic decision, the predominance of stark white walls feels too clinically sterile and removed from the context of life. The several places that utilize color or a backdrop work much better, although their infrequency makes them slightly awkward. The exhibition catalog, by contrast, is wonderful; its lush images are shot against a dark background that highlights the objects.

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