The Practice & Art of Thinking

Masks – A Visual Expression of Culture

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My first encounter with masks was in 1979. I accidentally walked into the Irma Stern Museum when I was a first year student at the University of Cape Town. The collection located on the lower campus (not sure where it is now) consisted of African masks. I was transfixed and decided that I was going to collect my own. My collection is modest and it is restricted to African Masks. Strangely, my most precious mask was purchased in Lisbon (Portugal).

My interest in masks has spanned at least 30 years. I even purchased a mask in Rabat (Morocco) – a place that has no mask tradition (the mask was originally from Ghana). All art and iconography in Islam has no animal or human depiction.

I was very surprised to discover an active and thriving mask culture in Bhutan. The practice is more thriving than any place I know in Africa.

In Bhutan, Vajrayana Buddhism (see previous post) is the official state religion – the only country in the world where this is the case. However, before the onset of Buddhism in the 8th century A.D., a form of animism (Animistic Bon) was the religion of Bhutan (the belief in the existence of individual spirits that inhabit natural objects and phenomena).

In this early period, rituals were performed to eradicate evil spirits who brought misery and sickness to the population. From observing current sacred masks and folk dances in local temples, monasteries and public celebrations, it is clear that the early animistic traditions have evolved and been incorporated into current religious cultural life.

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Small sample of Masks - images by Rui Martins

Small sample of Masks – images by Rui Martins

The Tshechu (religious) festivals of Bhutan are where one finds the very special and unique expression of the Bhutanese blend of devotion. The cham dances (only danced by monks or male members of the royal academy of performing arts – wearing brightly colored clothes and often masks) are the centre of these festivals. These dances are used as mystical teachings and are manifestations of meditational mandalas of vajrayana Buddhism in three-dimensional space – ‘visuality at its best’.

When I decided to explore this subject, I did not realize the complexity and multi-layered nature of the topic. I cannot do the topic justice in a post; it really needs serious study, especially to surface the symbolism as a visual expression of culture. Even the simple patterns in textiles have meaning and even these appear to not have a single meaning, instead the meanings of patterns are open to interpretation. They are contextual; meaning emerges and is open to interpretation by the narrator within a context. The iconic meaning is fixed but, once the icon is placed within a specific relationship with a context, a new narrative flows. I am sure you can see the endless possibilities. But then, who said that culture is as simple as 1+1?. Subtitles, nuances and the construction of meaning is a constant.

This is probably an explanation as to how culture evolves and transforms into higher forms of visual sophistication. Another topic to be explored in depth.

Back to mask-wearing, dancing monks. These dances tend to be performed in Dzongs (I will have a future post dedicated to two such amazing buildings. Dzongs were originally fortresses as well as temples).

The Dromchhoe festival, which generally includes mask dances, is dedicated to Mahakala (Yeshe Goenpo) and Mahakali (Palden Lhamo). These are Bhutan’s two principle protective deities and a Tshechu that is dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava (Indian Tantric Buddhist adept from the Swat Valley – credited for establishing the vibrant mask culture).

Mask Dance - image by Joseph Goh

Mask Dance – image by Joseph Goh

According to oral tradition, Guru Padmasambhva convinced the ancient mountain gods of the old religion and deities to become protectors of the new faith (Buddhism). These angry deities (depicted by fierce animal masks) become the protectors of the people against evil spirits. The masquerade becomes the visual act of expression of the cultural dominance over nature enacted in public to demonstrate the hero (the religion – the good) over evil – demonstrating to the ‘people’ that faith in the ritual is the means to ‘peace’.

There are clearly parallels between this and other religions. However subtle the ritual might be, they remain visual enactments that encompass movement and focused transfer of meaning onto objects or images. I wonder if there are not even parallels between these notions and forms of traditional management of control? I am sure one could draw parallels between these as well. Another research topic!

The masks become meditation in action. It is taboo to explain the mystical significance of the mask dances, unless one has been initiated into the Tantric ‘sciences’ and received special blessings. This means that as observers, we can only accept and hope that the ‘good’ is being done.

Tantric Buddhism invokes imagery associated with death. Such imagery points both to the end of ego which is associated with spiritual transformation and to the all‐too‐brief duration of our physical existence. The tormentors of the eight hot hells, according to Buddhist mythology, are all animal headed characters driving home the idea that animals have power and are awe‐inspiring.

The Tshechus are an enactment of the Buddhist belief of life after death as most of the series in the mask dances depict life after death. The dances have two functions. At the basic level, they entertain the populace while encouraging them to live good lives. The second function is to elevate humans to be liberated from earthly torment and gain enlightenment.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu - preparation.  Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu – preparation. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

The mask dancers enter into deep meditative trances, temporarily becoming an expression of the deities they represent. It is believed that the dance steps are not choreographed but are channeled through meditation trance from celestial teachings. No women are allowed to perform these dances.

I am told that the mask dances can be grouped into three categories:

  1.  Didactic dances, which are dances with morals;
  2.  Dances that purify and protect a place from demonic spirits; and
  3.  Dances that proclaim the victory of Buddhism and the glory of Guru Rinpoche over evil and malignant spirits.

When one sees the images of the masks, all this becomes very clear.

Some dances explained:

  1. Zhanag (Dance of the black hats): this dance dates back to the 9th century A.D. It tells the story of the subjugation of an anti‐Buddhist Tibetan King Langdarma in 842 AD. The dancers beat the drum and pound their foot on the ground proclaiming victory over the evil.
  2. Drametse Nga Chham: originating in the 16th century. Twelve or more dancers wearing yellow skirts and animal masks beat drums as they dance. They represent Guru’s entourage. UNESCO proclaimed Drametse Ngachham as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible cultural heritage of humanity during its third proclamation in Paris in November 2005.
  3. Durdag: dance of the masters of the cremation grounds. Their mission is to protect the eight cremation grounds in the cosmic diagram from demonic influences.
  4. Tungam: The dance of the fearsome deities. Dancers wear masks of wrathful deities and represent Guru’s entourage and are armed with ritual daggers.
  5. Dranyen Chham: Or the lute dance. This dance celebrates the founding and spread of the Drukpa school.
  6. Raksha Mangchham: The dance of the judgment of the dead. The god of the dead‐‐‐Shinge Choeki Gyalpo – presides over the dead with the guardians of heaven and hell, while the Rakshas (Aides to the god of death). narrate the tale of the deceased and his actions are weighed on a scale. Subsequently, the dead are brought to justice and are either sent to heaven or hell based on their deeds.
Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Mask Dance at the Timphu Tshechu. Image by Gelay Jamtsho. Cropped by Rui Martins.

Strange – as I write this, I am reminded of the play I saw of Doctor Faustus in Cape Town back in 1979 (Wikipedia has an interesting entry – particularly look at ‘Damnation or salvation’) – there were strong parallels in the visual imagery. Humanity, no matter where, has the same needs and concerns to protect itself of the ‘evil’. This obviously depends on what your beliefs are. But what remains fascinating is the need one has to visually externalize these beliefs and to enact them as a ritual. Why is this the case? Why don’t we enact them mentally?

There must be a very strong reason for the visual demonstration humans have to externalize the story in a visual form. The written equivalent would be a very poor substitute. One could not possibly capture all the details or the gestures enacted simultaneously by the different dances and hope to transmit the complete interconnected meaning and messages.

Author: Rui D S Martins

Creative Director and founder of MindVision Technologies

One thought on “Masks – A Visual Expression of Culture

  1. such a detail article. Very informative and see the cultural identity on the mask creation. Thanks for the post. Very informative.


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