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The following illustrations appeared in the original article. Click on thumbnail to launch to an external window.
Photo credits: Dennis Anderson, Don Tuttle, Scott McCue, Almac Photo.

Transforming Masks / Masks of the Himalayas

by Mort Golub

mort01.jpg
(1) Sorcerer disguised as a composite animal, Les Trois Freres, (after Breuil) circa 14,000 B.P. Earlier masked transformative beings have been documented back to 32,000 B.P. This may be our oldest icon.

Rituals of transformation may be considered basic expressions of human nature. Evidence for this extends back to the Paleolithic era cave painting find at Les Trois Freres, France. There, the image of a man disguised as an animal suggests the early use of masks to gain access to the realm of spirits. (ex 1) Animistic magic, an aspect of shamanism, has continued through time to include the masquerade with "rites of passage," such as birth, initiation, marriage, and attaining a rank. Mortuary rituals, the final transformation, often include masks. This use may, by extension, be seen as a function of ancestor worship.

People interpret non-verbal meaning from the facial cast. By recapitulating and exaggerating features of the face, masks become powerful vehicles for the expression of what Jungian psychology terms persona. Wearing a ritual mask animates a new persona, transforming the participant into the being invoked- deity, demon, animal totem, or ancestor. These essential images, shared by diverse cultures throughout time, suggest common roots, which have been termed "archetypes". Masking rituals present myth as real life interactive experience, both concealing and revealing.

Located just north of San Francisco, the Sausalito flea market was a legendary institution for over two decades. It was a magical gathering place, where throngs of people came to buy and sell objects from all over the world. Countless stories circulated about great finds: Caucasian rugs, Tibetan bronzes, African sculpture- to name just a few. One Sunday morning in 1985, I went searching for treasure, as was my custom. On a table an ancient looking black mask seemed to be staring at me. Picking it up, I was immediately intrigued.

The vendor told me that he had just returned from Nepal, where he had acquired the mask only a week before. It had been hand carried across the Himalayas to Katmandu by a Tibetan, who sold it in the market to raise money for Lo-gsar, the Tibetan New Year festival. The price seemed reasonable at $500, but being an old flea market hand I had to bargain. Little did I realize at that moment how this "bargain" would later cost me large sums of money and prove a catalyst for profound changes in my life.

After buying the mask, I continued to roam the flea market. I soon ran into an old friend, Thomas Murray, a well known authority on Asian tribal art. When I showed him the mask, he immediately offered to buy it. Never opposed to considering a good deal, I was none the less wary of this offer to double my money in ten minutes! I decided instead to hold onto it.

Once home, I hung it on a wall, but it terrified my two-year-old daughter, so into a drawer it went. (ex ) Tom would visit periodically, ask to see the mask, and offer ever increasing sums for it. He didn't think it was being appreciated, sitting in the closet, and should go to some one who could "see" it. The more he offered, the more curious I became. "What was it in this object that I couldn't recognize?" Finally, in exasperation, I asked for an explanation, even while telling him I was never going to sell it, no matter how much he offered.

Tom was happy to oblige. He considered the mask to be a 15th C. masterpiece, a Dharmapala, or Buddhist defender of the faith, from a provincial temple in Tibet. This deity was probably Mahakala, a wrathful manifestation of Shiva, a major Hindu deity. Masks of this kind were used in rituals called cham, masked dances that distill the essence of Buddhist beliefs in dramatic performances. The dense patina of 500 years of use proved its spiritual (ritual ) potency.

Tom supplied me with books on Himalayan art. He insisted that in order to develop a proper foundation in the subject, I must first do my home work. This would best be accomplished by building up a significant library. I became fascinated with the classical art of the Himalayan region, focusing on how artistic expressions in painting, bronze and stone related to mask forms. I read widely in Eurasian pre-history as well, learning about the Scythians, Huns, and Mongols of the Steppes. Their culture displayed affinities with that of Tibetan nomadic herdsmen. f.n. Tibet retained the Steppes nomadic animal style well into the 20th C..

(3) Garuda mask, North East Frontier, 17 th C., height 14 in. wood and horn with original stone pigments. The ancient Bon animist bird spirit, Khyung. Subsumed by later Buddhist imagery its shamanic connections are retained by its use of mountain goat horns.

My perception of the Mahakala began to change. Paradoxically, despite its frightening countenance, the mask radiated a calming presence. This quality suggested to me that the artistry concealed deeper, multiple meanings. I sensed it to be a physical representative of ideas that had survived millennia and dealt with the most basic human issues.

I was developing a strong sense of personal connection with the mask. Little post-modern Western art spoke to me in any way, and less so the esoteric 'critical' jargon of this period, disturbing for both its obscurity and absolute certainty as to interpretation of artistic meaning. Purely cerebral/aesthetic, late 20th. C. ideas, steeped in elitist ideologies, began to be replaced in my mind by artistic concepts that were more meaningful to me in their directness and their spirituality.

Masks of the Himalayas (or another header)

Masks of the Himalayas may be categorized into three basic groups, i.e., (ex 4, 5, & 6) classical, (associated with temples and monasteries); primitive/shamanic, (powerful art brut styles); and village/folk art creations, which bridge the two.

Primitive and village masks often display intriguing combinations of influences. Some are no doubt provincial versions of classical imagery, corrupted by distance from the court centers. Yet other "primitives" may represent direct and continuous lineage of ancient persona. Likewise the "classical" may easily be seen as more highly stylized expressions of ancient themes observed in the so-called "primitive school".

I became aware of the underlying conceptual kinship that informed all of this artistic output; the universal animist/shamanic roots of the major religions.

In classical Tibetan art, canonical laws restrict interpretive expressions in devotional art forms. (ex 7) By varying increments of style within these confines, artisans are able to produce masterpieces of distinctly individual character. This principle applies to mask carving as well. Classical masks were disciplined products reflecting a conservative religious convention through the centuries, presenting hieratic forms that reflect the traditional images better known in bronzes and Thanka paintings, all of which were greatly influenced by the art of the Pala period in India (9th-12th C.).

(4) Garuda mask, North East Frontier, 17 th C., height 14 in. wood and horn with original stone pigments. The ancient Bon animist bird spirit, Khyung. Subsumed by later Buddhist imagery its shamanic connections are retained by its use of mountain goat horns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is particularly apparent in Nepal. Some Magar and Gurung masks from the middle hills region survive with layers of ancient patina so deep that they redefine the morphology of the surface. (ex 11) Few areas in the world produce such beautiful and varied patinas. Heirloom masks of the ancestors, power enhanced by centuries of use, had proven ritual efficacy. (ex 9, 10.) Many village masks exhibit both shamanic and theatrical aspects and may, in fact, have shared in both traditions.(ex) The correlations between shamanic rituals and early theater are highly significant; both involve dramatic aspects that engage the audience.

(5) Dharmapala mask, Tibet. 18th C. or earlier .H: 20 in. wood and pigment.The style of this rare mask is reminiscent of Tang Dynasty images

 

 

Some village masks entered the collection from the tropical Terai area of S. Nepal (ex 14, 15) These had a completely different feel and character from the middle hills masks. Layers of paint and pigment formed the patina rather than smoke/ butterfat mixtures characteristic of inside storage and handling. Often they were carved from softer woods, which display a different character as they age than highland hardwoods.

Also from Nepal, a beautifully carved classical masterpiece became available to me - a wooden mask of Indra , dated to the 17th C. This mask had remarkable stylistic similarities to Nepalese ceremonial copper repoussé masks of the period. Indra, originally the focus of earlier Vedic forms of shamanism as supreme sky deity, later became the Hindu "king of gods." The price of this mask was for me extremely high but by then I had realized that if you want to have a great collection, you must pay the worth of great pieces.

During this period I had begun collecting found objects, old rusty pieces of metal with interesting surface patinas, old wood in natural forms. These things came from varied sources: junkyards, flea markets, beach flotsam, and excavation. My main interest however, remained focused on collecting and documenting masks.

I was very flattered when the late Prof. Samuel Eilenberg, one of the worlds preeminent scholar/collectors, came by with Tom for a visit. He offered wise counsel on the art of collecting. The gist of his observations were, "Look for the very earliest pieces with a compelling aesthetic, buy the best available within your means, always strive for that which may be termed 'classical'. "Prof. Eilenberg also stressed the importance of having a trusted and knowledgeable adviser/dealer. In his taciturn manner, he let it be known that he approved of both the individual choices and the direction of the collection. To me this was the highest possible validation.

(6) Black dharmapala, Gon-po or temple mask. Central Tibet, circa 18th. C., height 11 in. ³ Paper mache² with original crushed stone pigments. The scarcity of trees in this area led to the production of masks made in molds, using layers of varied organic materials, including textiles, wood pulp, leather, etc. Because of their fragility few of these relatively early examples survive intact.

Virtues found in classical masks -refined finishes, finely detailed carving, near perfect symmetry, and canonical exactness - are not necessarily to be applied to tribal images. In this area, lack of sculptural refinement, asymmetry, and heavily patinated, altered surfaces are desirable features. In primitive masks, the apparent animistic "wildness" of conception is, in fact, far from being random. Over time, one begins to identify recurring characters.

Some primitive masks achieve stature by minimalist "absence" of features. On others, simple faceted cuts, adze marks, random scarring of long use, and exaggerated features can help create strong presences that seem informed by a demonic intelligence. (black rug) (ex 15, 16)

Each mask seemed to attract the next one. I acquired some masks from the restricted North East Frontier area of India. These masks were highly sophisticated and beautifully patinated examples from a tribal Buddhist tradition. Their use by Monpa and Sherdukpen people in masked dance dramas related to Tibetan cham rituals, which have roots in shamanism, has been well documented. (ref. 1)

Nothing can survive completely unchanged, but within Himalayan traditions, the tribal masks of Nepal form a unique repository of ancient imagery whose syntax has survived in few other forms. These images from the deep past seemed dense with temporal resonances that I felt more and more in tune with and whose faces began to populate my dreams.

The masks that inspire me the most are pieces that have been changed in so many ways by time and use that they may no longer resemble the original conception. This eroded quality suggests mysteries percolating beneath the surface. As well, the backs of old wooden masks that have been well used are often as interesting as the front. Front and back often seem to have been conceived as a continuum, in a visual as well as a tactile sense.(f.n. Petit) Repairs and later additions can also be very eloquent.

"Part of this Ancient Continuum"



During this period I began to make images myself: masks, transformational human/animal figures, and assemblages, - sculptural forms influenced by these ancient undercurrents. The materials I chose to work with were already in a state of transformation, and now the reason for collecting this discarded wood and metal began to reveal itself. The objects I constructed became, in a sense, the descendants of what I had collected and I came to believe that my work was in some way a part of this ancient continuum.  (ex 16, 17)

(7) Red dharmapala, Gon-po or temple mask. Central Tibet, circa 18th. C., height 13 in. ³ Paper mache² with original crushed stone pigments. The scarcity of trees in this area led to the production of masks made in molds, using layers of varied organic materials, including textiles, wood pulp, leather, etc. This is a more typical rendition than the previous example

Old wood and metal carry traces of their passage through time, traces that are not always visual. Brancusi, for example, used to work with ancient house beams "impregnated for centuries by the happiness and sorrow of their inhabitants." (ref.4) Using wood and metal together creates a tension between the refined and the organic that allows for a more dynamic expression of both mediums. (ex 19) This synthesis is dictated by surface values. The texture of surface becomes part of the form rather than a "skin" covering it. One problem with this technique is that if the surface is too seductive, it may interfere with the perception of the form. This ambiguity became a personal device for exploring these interfaces.

For a long time I created for my own satisfaction only. I had no intention of sending these images out into the world. Free from political ax grinding and commercial constraints, they became vehicles for self exploration. These very insular motivations were themselves soon to transform.

Over time I began to get some feedback. Explaining my work was always more difficult than making it. I felt that the pieces should speak for themselves - communication was in the art; explanations were superfluous. Nevertheless, the dialogue continued. I resisted this at first, not wanting to be influenced by the preferences of others, but certain suggestions took root, bringing changes to my work which I no longer found necessary to resist. Sometimes this led to profound artistic crises, which in turn became the driving force for new explorations.

For example, my early work tended toward small and fragile constructions. People are wary of fragility in sculpture and soon these works developed into larger, more "solid"formats. Many of these were based on natural forms, and "found"objects, either incorporating, or imitating them. I try to keep all my work within a human scale, avoiding any suggestions of monumentality.

My work began to sell. Friends in the tribal and Asian art community began ask to buy my pieces. A contemporary art gallery in San Francisco, Lawrence Hultberg Fine Arts, purchased some pieces and offered a one man exhibit, as well as participation in several group shows. Tony Kitz gallery, also in San Francisco, specialists in antique carpets, began to feature some of my work , for its sense of Central Asian shamanism. London-based dealer Shirley Day acquired some work for exhibition.

( 8) Indra, Katmandu Valley, Nepal, circa 17th C., height 11 in. Although Indra was eventually ³demoted² in the Hindu pantheon, the legacy of the original meaning of the sky deity survives in the symbolism of ascent and its association with shamanic flight.

Ibegan to see myself not so much as a collector but as an artist. I felt driven by the need to continue this imagery from the distant past and tried to give it some new meaning relevant to the present. The only means of achieving this goal was to open myself up to intuitive input by following the suggestions of the material, the dream state, and my own experiences in heightened awareness. (ex 18, 19) I try to restrict my forms to what I call a tribal aesthetic. This is not a contrived "archaism" but an attempt to work within the boundaries of my predecessors. In a sense my lack of formal training allowed me greater artistic freedom, and earned me the label of "outsider" artist.

I continue to have mixed feelings about the need to explain, or even title, my work. In fact, I like to start out not knowing exactly "where the work is going"- the choice of materials and selection of the first structural component pointing the way. As the piece progresses I am more concerned with the rightness of the process than the final result.

Using mask-related sculptural suggestions - i.e., blurring the distinction between "inside" and "outside" has opened some challenging artistic territories. Interrupted volumes and openings to the " interior" invite the eye to access the "inside"as part of a continuum. I try to suggest the ambivalent nature of surfaces by drawing upon shamanic "x-ray" styles. (ex 20, 21)

Collecting has forced me to face more than a few troubling questions: Are masks removed from their cultural milieu in some way powerless and desanctified by lack of "authentic" use? Does hanging them on a wall as art objects count as use? Do power objects have "universal affect" or only the power granted to them by the audience? This is an old debate and definitive answers to these questions remain elusive, subjective, and in the end, perhaps meaningless.

All I can offer is my personal experience - the exposure to masks has transformed my life in almost every way. I have become a collector, researcher, and now an artist. There can be no doubt, that at least for me, these objects remain potent in their ability to transform.

Ref.1. For those interested in more detailed information on the Himalayan masking tradition,
I would recommend Thomas Murray's article "Demons and Deities" in the Hali 2 annual.

Ref.2 V. Elwin, Art of the NEFA of India, and Thomas Murray, "Demons and Deities."

Ref. 3 M. Eliade "Shamanism: Archaic techniques of Ecstasy."

Ref 4 G.W. Staempfli, "20th C Master Works in Wood."

Ref 5 WHO? "Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave"p.123, Harry Abrams, 1996.

Ref. 6 WHO? The Lotus Transcendent, p.80, 146 For earlier interpretations of this essential image, 2nd C. A.D. and 12th. C . A.D.

(1) Sorcerer disguised as a composite animal, Les Trois Freres, (after Breuil) circa 14,000 B.P. Earlier masked transformative beings have been documented back to 32,000 B.P. This may be our oldest icon. (Ref.5.)

(1) Sorcerer disguised as a composite animal, Les Trois Freres, (after Breuil) circa 14,000 B.P. Earlier masked transformative beings have been documented back to 32,000 B.P. This may be our oldest icon. (Ref.5.)

(2) Dharmapala mask, probably Mahakala, Tibet, circa 15th. C., height 11 in. Hardwood, with thick black patina and traces of original crushed stone pigment. Exposed storage in elevated spots between periods of use, explains why this patina differs from that of other masks of the period, stored in trunks and retaining their fresh, brilliant colors.

(3) Mask fragment, Monpa/Sherdukpen tribes.East Bhutan/Arunachal Pradesh border area. 12 - 15 th C. H: 8.5 in.. Wood and pigment. Spirit figure resembling Japanese Noh masks of this period, to which there is a shared cultural impulse.

(4) Garuda mask, North East Frontier, 17 th C., height 14 in. wood and horn with original stone pigments. The ancient Bon animist bird spirit, Khyung. Subsumed by later Buddhist imagery its shamanic connections are retained by its use of mountain goat horns.

(5) Dharmapala mask, Tibet. 18th C. or earlier .H: 20 in. wood and pigment.The style of this rare mask is reminiscent of Tang Dynasty images.

(6) Black dharmapala, Gon-po or temple mask. Central Tibet, circa 18th. C., height 11 in. "Paper mache" with original crushed stone pigments. The scarcity of trees in this area led to the production of masks made in molds, using layers of varied organic materials, including textiles, wood pulp, leather, etc. Because of their fragility few of these relatively early examples survive intact.

(7) Red dharmapala, Gon-po or temple mask. Central Tibet, circa 18th. C., height 13 in. "Paper mache" with original crushed stone pigments. The scarcity of trees in this area led to the production of masks made in molds, using layers of varied organic materials, including textiles, wood pulp, leather, etc. This is a more typical rendition than the previous example.

(8) Indra, Katmandu Valley, Nepal, circa 17th C., height 11 in. Although Indra was eventually "demoted" in the Hindu pantheon, the legacy of the original meaning of the sky deity survives in the symbolism of ascent and its association with shamanic flight.Add

(9) Cham mask depicting Steppes Tiger. Tibet or Bhutan. h: 11 in. Mold made, paper mulberry paste, unknown materials, pigments. A vital example of "animal style" art as a possible incarnation of Padmasambhava.

(10) Citipati (Lord of the funeral pyre) mask. Tibet or Arunichal Pradesh.18 th C. H: 8 in. wood with pigment. Such images are used as a "memento mori", a reminder of the illusory nature of life.

(11) primitive/shamanic mask from middle hills, Nepal. Gurung or Magar tribes. 17 th C. or earlier. H: 8 in. hardwood with crusty patina.

(12) Black Dharmapala with white teeth. Tibet, circa 15th C., height 11 in. Hardwood with traces of original crushed mineral pigments and remains of beard and mustache. This mask, of an unknown deity, displays archaic features as well as a relationship with Citipati (skull) images. Is this a classical mask that has not yet formalised its roots, or a remote area version of classicism.

(13) Primitive/shamanic mask from middle hills Nepal. 17/18 th C. H: 9.5 inches. This mask like the following example has marked similarities to Siberian masks associated with Shamanic practice.

(14) Mask from middle hills area, Nepal, 19th C., height 9in. Spirit figure. An example of a relatively recent mask with great graphic presence. Masks like this, with the back uncarved, were not worn but hung on walls as threshold guardians. This mask takes advantage of naturally occuring eccentricities in burl wood.

(15) Primitive/shamanic mask from middle hills, Nepal. This mask is one of a group that features a distinct character, (nicknamed "potato head") Unknown usage. Sculpturally this mask shows very different aspects from every angle. 17/18th C. H: 11 inches.

(16) Magar or Gurung mask, middle hills, Nepal, 17-18th C. Height 9in. This distinctive character appears in many closely related versions, usually with beard and mustache. Use unknown.

(17) Primitive/shamanic mask from middle hills, Nepal, H: 9.5 inch. Wood with pigment. The austere simplicity of this mask and its rare white color create a particularly powerful affect.

(18) Mask from middle hills, Nepal. 17th C. or earlier, height 9 in.Thick layered black patina. Very heavy hardwood with petrified feel. Elemental graphics enhanced by early native repairs. Possibly used in early shamanic rituals involving blood sacrifice.

(19) Mask from Terai region, S. Nepal, 18th C., height 10 in., wood. Such masks with twisted mouths have been compared to shamanic Tunghak spirit masks common to many Alaskan tribes. Other uses include folk- theatrical productions based on classical Hindu epic dramas.

(20) Animal Mask from Terai area, S. Nepal, 18th. C.; height 12 in. Softwood with traces of original mineral pigments. Known as the "Modigliani" These schematic monkey masks were used in dramatic performances by Tharu or Rajbansi tribesmen. A possible representation of Hanuman, the great helper of Rama in the Mahabharata epic.

(21) Mask, Monpa/Sherdukpen tribes. E Bhutan or Arunachal Pradesh. 18/19th C. H: 8 in. Wood, pigment. The fine symmetric features resemble a Northwest Coast aesthetic. This together with its high gloss patina make this mask one of the most admired in the collection.

(22) Mask: Monpa/Sherdukpen tribes. E Bhutan or Arunachal Pradesh. 18/19 th C. Wood, pigment. This piece captures the animal totem of the snow leopard, the most powerful predator of the mountains.

(23) "Joker" Mask, Monpa/Sherdukpen tribes. height 10 in. 18/19th. C. Such masks, used for comic relief between the acts of dramatic performances, may have originally been used in shamanic rituals. Beard and headdress are the most recent of several replacements. This mask represents Houshang a monk who tried unsucessfully to convert Tibet to a Chinese form of Buddhism. Here depicted as a "comic" foreigner.

Sculpture 
The following images of the sculpture of Mort Golub appeared in the original article.
 

(24) Guardians of the portal. 
Shamanic group with animal guide. metal, pigments, and found objects, height 6 in., 1992. This was one of my early pieces and remains unique in both depicting a group and telling a story. 
Collection Thomas Murray, California.

(25) Mask, Threshold guardian. 
Patinated metal, pigments, and found objects, height 7in., 1994. 
Shirley Day Gallery, London.

(26a) "Transition" 10.25 inch. found metal, pigments.
This piece is the essence of transformation, with its rusty surface in the process of becoming something else. Private collection.

(27) Head 1995, 10.5 inches. metal, found objects, (wood armature) Inspired by Tibetan prototypes, this head is one of an ongoing series. private collection, California

(28) Dancing Transformative Being. Patinated metal, found objects, pigments, height 60 inches, 1995. Inspired by ice age paintings of composite figures. Collection Thomas Murray, California.

(29) Masked striding figure with bird spirit. Metal, found objects,

(30) "Threshhold Guardian" found metal, wood, pigments. First fusion of wood and metal. height 31 inches, wall piece, private collection