NPJ Book Review: Masks, Faces of Culture by John W. Nunley, Cara McCarty.


Masks, Faces of Culture by John W. Nunley, Cara McCarty. (2000)

What is it about masks that draws us to that which is concealed? Masking is ancient – entertainment, fashion, superstition, myth, war, politics, culture, ritual, religion, power, fear, joy and more.

The authors begin by stating: “Masks are the most ancient means of changing identity and assuming a new persona. From the beginning putting on a mask has never been a singular activity. In order for masking to have meaning and relevance, it needs an audience, a minimum of one observer, The urge perhaps even universal human need, to transform ourselves has coexisted with the development of human society.”

The origins of the word mask, the authors suggest, comes from the Arabic maskhara,which meant “to falsify” or “transform” into the face of another, whether human or animal. Over the centuries the word mask came to imply varied meanings depending on the group or culture but ultimately meant to conceal the person’s actual face.

The authors in this rich tapestry of photos and cultures note that masks are essentially a core to being human and are found in every regions of the world – for ritual, entertainment, war and mystery that is very personal to the wearer of the mask. This work focuses on the “journey” the mask people devise from “renderings in prehistoric caves to their use on the moon.”

The authors offer a general survey from the Prehistory and Origins of Masks, Rites of Passage, Festivals of Renewal, Men as Women, Theater to  Offense and Defense. Though there are other more scholarly works this book offers insights that cause the reader to want to know more. Not all occasions for wearing a mask are reviewed. (The book was created as a companion to an exhibition at the St. Louis art Museum). For this reader the survey offers a general psychology of culture – the process of channeling emotions, passions, courage, fear and beliefs through masking.

The book is worth the reading for the anecdotes, stories, associated myths and insights surrounding the use of certain types of masks and viewing the exquisite photographs from around the world. Masks is a very fine reference work.