August 20, 2022

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Exploring the Politics of Masks Beyond COVID

5 min read
Exploring the Politics of Masks Beyond COVID

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Poster for Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine, directed by Louis Feuillade, 1913. Private Collection (all images courtesy CCCB)

BARCELONA — It was not until after I’d watched Mary Wigman’s Witch Dance several times over that I realized she had remained seated for the duration of the performance: nothing about the way Wigman snaps her limbs and claws at the air could reasonably be called constrained. Nor was it immediately apparent that the dancer was wearing a mask — though this, admittedly, owes something to the graininess of the century-old footage. For Wigman, whose expressionist style channeled the anxieties of post-World War I Europe, masks were essential to her exploration of the grotesque and the otherworldly. As she would later state, the mask “constantly changes during the dance. It breathes and lives like a living face within its frozen form.”

The paradox highlighted by Wigman’s quote lies at the heart of The Mask Never Lies, which runs at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona through May 1 and seeks to provide a global view of the history and politics of masking. Though masks are popularly conceived of as limiting expression — think Comedy and Tragedy frozen in unchanging displays of extreme, caricatured emotion — the exhibition suggests, counterintuitively, that in important ways they allow their wearers to access a range of emotions, of which the human face alone is incapable. It’s an idea that comes through clearly in the gallery devoted to lucha libre, where the presenter of a documentary on the sport asserts that without its signature masks it would be much less expressive. Far from being static, in other words, masks are richly polysemic: funny, mysterious, striking, intimidating, and theatrical — sometimes all at once.

Sophie Taeuber dancing in a Marcel Janco mask, Zurich, 1917. Stiftung Hans Arp und Sophie Taeuber-Arp e. V.

The CCCB’s show comes as the contemporary association of face coverings with COVID-19 safety guidelines — and all of the heated political dust-ups attendant upon them — has not only flattened the way we commonly understand masks but has in some sense inverted it. Whereas masks have historically been used to frighten spirits and humans alike, the gallery text notes that today “it is the bare face that disturbs and causes worry.” In this context, The Mask Never Lies aims to provide a vision of masks and masking far richer than the narrow pro-vs.-anti arguments of the pandemic: from evocations of the spiritual to instruments of terror, from symbols of social ills to tools of rebel fighters, from signs of belonging to indelible marks of outsider status. 

One of the main historical threads explored in the exhibition is the masking practice of the Ku Klux Klan, which grew out of Carnival traditions of costuming and originally could include more overtly bestial elements such as horns and bits of fur. Ties between Carnival and the Klan were deep: those tasked with drumming up funds for the holiday celebrations were frequently also Klan members, while Klansmen’s violence against Black community members was sometimes reenacted on parade floats to entertain the white population. As the historian Elaine Frantz Parsons remarks in a documentary screened in the gallery, Black people singled out for Klan attacks often recognized their assailants despite their disguises; in this context, the Klansmen’s hoods were meant not to provide anonymity but rather to demarcate the boundary between their wearers’ normal “gentlemanly” identity and the violence they perpetrated under cover of night. If Carnival and the carnivalesque generally refer to an interval during which the prevailing social order is raucously upended, the CCCB exhibition seems to suggest that, at least in the United States, Carnival was a time during which the racial hierarchy was merely further entrenched.

Anna Coleman Ladd retouching the prosthetic mask of Mr. Caudron, 1918. Coleman Ladd was a sculptor who worked on facial prosthetics for combatants injured in World War I. Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

The Mask Never Lies is at its most intriguing when it’s most subversive: charting how various grassroots and subcultural movements have used masks to elude detection, mock authority, and signal unanimous opposition to the powers that be. Artifacts in the exhibition explore figures and movements ranging from the animal-masked rebels of New York State’s Anti-Rent War to Superbarrio Gómez, the superhero-activist who fights for housing rights in Mexico City; from the neon-balaclava-sporting members of Pussy Riot to the 1999 Carnival Against Capitalism, whose participants donned paper Mardi Gras masks and filled the streets of London to clog its financial engines. Through dialing up the theatricality of political expression, these groups expose the falsities and dramatics — and, yes, the masks — that are part of even the tamer, more mainstream side of political discourse.

Sharp in its analysis and catholic in its scope, The Mask Never Lies challenges viewers to take silliness seriously, to understand covering one’s face as an assertion of identity, to look past a fixed expression and see a multitude of meanings. As facial recognition technology and mass data collection provide law enforcement with increasingly powerful tools against the anonymity of faces in the crowd, the CCCB’s investigations into masking may take on increasing relevance for activists around the globe: what can masks do beyond merely hiding, and how we might harness these powers for our own ends?

Installation view of The Mask Never Lies at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona
Anti-Renters costumes, 1845. Image published in Delaware County, New York, History of the Century, 1797-1897. Collection of the New York Historical Society 
Kati Horna, from the series Woman and Mask. Portrait of Remedios Varo, who wears a mask made by Leonora Carrington and José Horna, Mexico City, 1957. Gelatin silver print. Kati and José Horna Private Archive of Photos and Graphics (© Ana María Norah Horna Fernández 2005, all rights reserved)
Kati Horna, from the series Ode to Necrophilia, published in the magazine S.NOB. Mexico City, 1962. Gelatin silver print. Kati and José Horna Private Archive of Photos and Graphics (© Ana María Norah Horna Fernández 2005, all rights reserved)
An assistant at a shop in Slough, Berkshire, England, with a selection of Guy Fawkes masks (photo by William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Larry Fink, from the series Black Mask, New York City (1967) (Larry Fink Studio)
Wrestler photographed by Lourdes Grommet, 1981 (courtesy Lourdes Grobet)
Altay (China), February 20, 2020: Border authorities travel through the snow to inspect a mountainous border area and to provide information about COVID-19 to residents in a remote area of Altay, Xinjiang province, China on February 19, 2020 (EFE/EPA/A RAN CHINA OUT, Agency EFE)

The Mask Never Lies continues at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (Carrer de Montalegre, 5, 08001, Barcelona, Spain) through May 1. The exhibition was curated by Servando Rocha and Jordi Costa.

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