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Becoming Another: The Power of Masks

Mask of Begtse Chen from Mongolia (20th century), papier-mâché, coral, turquoise, metal, fabric, in ‘Becoming Another: The Power of Masks’ at the Rubin Museum of Art (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Around 100 masks of every contorted grimace imaginable, both human and animalistic, are assembled on the top floor of the Rubin Museum of Art for the new exhibition Becoming Another: The Power of MasksLoosely united around themes of shamanism and community ritual, the masks are presented as a representation of the compulsion for transformation around the globe. No matter the culture or environment, it seems like there’s something knotted inside humanity that’s unwound through disguise.

Oracle’s attire from Mongolia (early 20th century), cotton, silk, iron, wood, feathers, leather.

Becoming Another is curated by Jan Van Alphen, the Rubin’s director of exhibitions, collections, and research, and it centers on the museum’s own holdings of Tibetan art, including beautiful masks that rarely go on view. One elusive object in the museum’s collection is a stunning Begtse mask from Mongolia dating to the early 20th century and adorned with an incredible mosaic of hundreds of pieces of coral; it’s one of fewer than ten such masks known to exist. The beauty and rarity of the works in Becoming Another make the small exhibition worth a tour. Alongside the Tibetan masks are pieces from the 15th to 20th century loaned by institutions like the American Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, covering a broad slice of the world including Japan, Siberia, India, Bhutan, and the Pacific Northwest.

Installation view of ‘Becoming Another: The Power of Masks’ (click to enlarge)

Each of the masks in Becoming Another is striking in its own way, such as the 19th-century Tlingit shaman’s mask of a bear or land otter, which would have been one of about eight possessed by the Northwest Coast practitioner, or the oracle’s veil attached to a costume of triangular banners with embellished skulls from Mongolia. And then there’s the 20th-century deer mask from Bhutan with exposed fangs, showing the wildness of the animal beneath its ordinarily gentle exterior. One downside of the exhibition is that aside from very spare video, the exhibition is static, and all these masks and accompanying shaman and oracle costumes were designed to be active and in motion. While some are too obscure now to know the purpose, others, like the giant bird mask with wings from British Columbia with its eyes made from bicycle or door bells meant to glimmer in the light of a fire, could have some contemporary representation in First Nations culture. Each mask instead feels a bit stranded from its original use. Nevertheless, together they are an impressive parade of different faces and shifting identities, evoking some spiritual or bestial identity, tools from a long tradition of mutation.

At left: deer mask from Bhutan (20th century), papier-mâché, polychrome; at right: wild animal mask from Bhutan (19th century), papier-mâché, polychrome

Possible shamanistic mask from Nepal (19th-20th century), wood, fur, traces of pigments

Shaman’s attire from Mongolia (early 20th century), cotton, iron, feathers, leather, wood. The strips hanging off the coat are symbolic of snakes.

Tlingit shaman mask of a bear or land otter from the Pacific Northwest Coast (19th century), wood, opercula, moose hide, animal hide, pigment.

Bird mask with wings from British Columbia (pre-1910), wood, cloth paint.

Transformation mask by Tsungani Fearon Smith (1979), wood, horsehair, abalone, paint

At left: Bird mask with wings from British Columbia (pre-1910), wood, cloth paint. ; At right: Thunderbird mask from the Pacific Northwest (pre-1917), wood, pigment

Left: Owl mask from Bhutan (20th century), papier-mâché, polychrome; Right: Garuda mask from India or Bhutan (18th-19th century), wood with traces of polychrome

Bear mask made by Tsungani Fearon Smith, Jr. (1977), cedar, bear fur.

At right: a mask representing famous Tibetan yogi and Tibetan opera founder Thantong Gyalpo, used by the Tashi Sholpa Opera, 19th-20th century, leather, felt, goat hair, cowrie shells, yarn

Mask of Ekajati from Mongolia, 20th century, papier-mâché, polychrome

Deer mask from Mongolia, 19th-20th century, papier-mâché, polychrome

A costume and masks used in the Cham dances of Buddhism

Becoming Another: The Power of Masks continues at the Rubin Museum of Art (150 West 17th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 8, 2016.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...