FACESHIFTING II: Animistic Masks From the Himalayas

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FACES H I FT I NG I I : Animistic Masks of the Himalayas


FACESH I FT I N G I I : Animistic Masks of the Himalayas

Cavin-Morris Gallery New York, NY

FACESHIFTING II : Animistic Masks From the Himalayas “That an art form of this magnitude should remain unknown on a planet that increasingly resembles a village in which every street and alley is known is an opportunity for discovery one could hardly dare hope for. The otherworldliness, power, and originality of these creations should arouse the curiosity of researchers and the admiration of enthusiasts. These works should be given their rightful place in the exhibition halls of the world’s museums, so that the contribution that the isolated artists of the Nepalese mountains have made can become better known and take the place it deserves in the art patrimony of mankind.” - Eric Chazot, Himalayas Art and Shamans “and the mask is still with us-the crystallization of superstitions and beliefs, the instrument of the supernatural and the divine. “ “Somewhere between laughter and terror...” “Quite frankly, I know of no other sculpture by Lipchitz, Gaudier Brzeska, Epstein, Archipenko or Zadkine which manages to bring together as many formal and expressive qualities as any mask, masterpiece, by a Himalayan artist who will, alas, no doubt remain eternally anonymous….” - Marc Petit, À Masque Découvert, 1995 “The mask is the privilege of deities and demons who have never lost their identity as naturist spirits in an atmosphere mingling anguish, unease, or at least that feeling of strangeness which comes with the supernatural.” - (Le Masque, Musée Guimet, Paris 1960) Henri Jeanmaire Our first Faceshifting exhibition in 2014 featured masks from all over the world. FACESHIFTING II focuses on the Himalayan (Nepal, India, Bhutan) masking phenomenon, under-documented (especially in English), yet incredibly rich and varied. There is almost an Art Brut quality to the masks, as each is most often carved by the user creatively, within very broad guidelines. The masks, although still actively danced today, obviously have ancient origins in traditions that were in place before Hindu and Buddhist beliefs became the established religions of the area. The Himalayas have long been a site of mixed spiritualities. The animist sensibilities came from an intense relationship with the vagaries of Nature, including the weather, agricultural cycles, health, and disease. Each mask reads as a journal of this survival and the intensities of those beliefs; some are not danced but have an ancestral 3

presence, hung in homes over doorways or placed by the hearth for amuletic purposes for home and family. The characters are archetypal; sacred clowns or tricksters, wild men of the bush, goddesses, priests and demons, wise old men, and others. They are stark and often expressively powerful in their minimal charged lines, with deep patination of ash sacrificial materials adding to their venerable mysteries. Nepalese masks have retained their essentialism and animistic references over centuries, perhaps millennia. Much of the context and information has been forgotten even by those dancing the masquerades, but new contexts have been built around the masks so the power and the awe and the dangerous metaphysical edge still remains. And we are forced to accept those mysteries without empirical analysis. They are the faces of the forest and the mountain crags, they are the faces of the trees, all hairy and ungroomed, thick with the intense patinas of use and age. The history of masking is the history of Mankind, stemming from the first time a human needed to project some other face or persona than the one he or she was born with, in order to communicate with spiritual and natural forces and entities. The mask from any culture takes its wearer to a place where a separation of material and immaterial planes of existence simply do not exist. Even though the shaman and his or her assistants are specialists, everyone in the community had the potential already within them to take part in the selflessness of deep immersion in transformative ceremony, where audience and performer alike participate in an organic suspension of disbelief. In this culture, all is a function of ceremony; the facilitation of survival. The mundane is never merely mundane. Life is not organized into religious/non-religious. There is no separation. Life functions in a continuously kinetic universe, where the cycles of life and death hold no vestige of sentimentality even as over the ages humans began to attach ethical and moral codes to actions as part of the process of human ecology. Masks are part of the inner topography of mankind’s spiritual and secular needs. We often read or hear that they are mirrorsl; mirrors of our collective psyche, manifested locally according to our cultural lives. A mirror is too narrow to parse the very broad spectrum of meanings. A mirror limits the insight. The mask has a much broader reach. Nor is its function to disguise. Disguise suggests subterfuge, but really the mask signals something deeper. It projects a destruction of the immediate ego and a merging with the numinous mythological underpinnings of vernacular cultures in an intense and complex process. The shape-shifting is non-physical as well as physical. Rather than as agents of disguise, we should see the masks as outward transformative signs. The wearer is not hidden because he actually no longer exists for the time the mask is worn. The animistic mask actually says: “Look, something else is being revealed here. Another aspect of our world has been invited and presented and the


entity you now see, projected by the body and face, is a being you might very well know and recognize in the spiritual realm; but it is not the being of the human under the mask!” It is as much the spirit who has traversed dimensions to wear the mask and borrow a body as the other way around. The mask is not ‘other.' If you are in a state of ‘not me’; ego erased, then most likely you are in that universal place of ‘we.' 'I' move aside to allow in an entity recognized by the group over time as having some kind of ancestral connection, whether on this plane, or on a different plane of existence. Ancestors become spirits, and so engagement with spirits is a necessary part of community. Spirits are, after all, family also. The most important part of art-making, past or present, is process; the engagement of the artist with the mystical or quasi-mystical makeup of time and place that makes the physical world disappear and brings nothing but immediate connection to what is being made, and why it is being made. Intentionality is of utmost importance to this process. We have learned this from Art Brut, and those indigenous arts not made specifically for the agency of the art world mainstream. The end result is not always as important to the artist as the actual making or using of the work because the maker is in a creative state of altered consciousness in order to engage the energies or entities necessary to facilitate the work. These entities can be history, both personal and cultural, and often religious, healing, or judicial. In many examples from the Himalayas, the one who carves the mask often uses it, meaning that his particular process has not ended with the putting down of tools, but continues into the performing space of possession or enactment. Later, when the mask is put away or displayed, it is still ‘living.' In other cases the mask is passed to someone else to enact or receive the spirits to continue the process. Each culture has its variations on this aspect. What is universal however, whether the mask is used by the maker or a second person, is that the mask does not mirror us, rather it is turned outwards. It mirrors the universal players; the gods, the goddesses, their messengers, natural entities and forces, the monsters of our collective psyches, our histories, myths, legends, ancestors, fears and angers, joys and hopes in a collective non-egoistic basis. It really mirrors the collective inner landscapes of the culture. When the audience watches, it is with the knowledge that they are privileged to see what they do not ordinarily see. Shamans are charismatic beings who act as intermediaries, as mediators between human and spirit worlds. For example, in Siberia, shamans themselves wear the masks but this is generally not the practice in the Himalayas. We do not know if this was always the case. In the Himalayas the shaman usually does not wear a mask but his assistants might. He might also hold the mask in his hand as a healing object in a ceremony or as an ancestor bearing witness or even dictating the cure or exorcism. He really has no need for the mask because the shaman IS the mask.


As healer, technician of the sacred, master of chaos or disorder, surfer of times’ maelstrom, sacred warrior, wounded healer, and on and on, he is the tool of the mask at the same time that the mask is his tool. Over his life, he has erased his own history to merge with the role needed for the culture’s survival. He can maintain balance and he can upset it. He has been elected through collective dreams, chosen as the representative of places others have chosen not to go. He or she is the root of culture, of healing, of alchemical medicine, of magic, of cosmic power, of theatre with its tragedy and comedy and ecstasy. The first king, the first clown, the first alchemist, the first sorcerer, the first doctor was the shaman. Often in his or her selection a near death experience or a symbolic death has been experienced in order to be reborn as cosmic mediator. The shaman connects or reconnects the community to those entities the masks represent. The shaman’s role often depends on his implementation of moral neutrality. This is perhaps one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of non-Western spirituality. In the West it is assumed that all humans must cast off Evil and aspire toward Good. It is black and white with little gray area. Non-Western moral neutrality is a complex state more closely married to natural cycles. Nature itself has no foregone moral or ethical conclusions. Nature is rarely, if ever, sentimental. Karma begins in Nature and is refined by human psychology -- no dichotomy of good or evil, but rather the forces interacting to shape a life. These forces become a resource. Mankind separates them and pits one against the other but ironically it is so often the very same person, that shamanic personality, who, through his or her process, uncovers the rare materials of good and evil. He can perform the magic against you and he can provide you the antidote to magic made against you. For this reason he is often hated and loved and almost universally feared. The shaman is Nature’s representative in all her unpredictability. The mask and masking has been endowed with the shaman’s legacy as a message of Nature. We see clown figures known as tricksters in nearly every culture that uses masks from Asia to the Americas. The clowns are rarely whimsical. Their transgressive behavior and sharp responses probe the borders of sanctioned behavior and he both transgresses and polices those borders. The shaman is also a sacred clown because of his permeability to and contact with opposing natural forces, which make a cosmic game out of survival. Sexual innuendo, political sarcasm, the turning of laws upside down provide both warning and challenge in his performance. The clown or trickster mask becomes the embodiment of social balance by patrolling those outer borders of acceptable behavior. The life of a mask does not end when it is put on the wall or on a stand in a home or museum because the mask, even if seen as a work of art by us, does not lose its state of being when the process is over. It becomes a sign, a metaphor, a symbol, a gateway to different large and small truths. The mask on a wall is cultural flag. It is a song. It may no longer occupy the immediacy of its original home ground but


that is part of how masks live. Masks are fluid. They have their own lives and those lives are in flux over time. The Yupik people of Alaska set used masks out to rejoin the earth, the Zuni people of the American southwest keep them in specialized secret repositories. Chapayeka masks are set on fire in Sonora, Mexico at the end of the week-long Easter celebrations. Elsewhere in Mexico, masks are transformed over time till their mnemonic functions fade and they hold new identities. They have shape-shifted. You cannot kill a mask that easily. Because it is often a placeholder, a temporary body for a spirit, a feeling, a God or Goddess, or a symbol of history, it continues to live. The uses of these masks at their inception range from pure shamanistic need to high theatre with roots in the blending of natural and animistic spirituality. Again, each mask does not hide the identity of the wearer, it obliterates it in such a way that the ecstatic spirit depicted becomes the mask's present and living actuality. Shamanism is a form of mediation and cosmic power brokered between ancestral worlds and the present. Animism is the knowledge that each presence on this earth has a spirit and/or a soul. The shaman is an astral warrior, whose own life often depends on the outcome of his multi-dimensional warfare in the spirit world.


Randall Morris Brooklyn, NY April, 2016


Arunachal Pradesh/Bhutan, Monpa circa 19th C. Wood 9 x 7 x 4.5 inches 22.9 x 17.8 x 11.4 cm M 50s


Arunchal Pradesh/Bhutan - Monpa, Apa Character circa 19th C. Wood 10 x 8 x 5 inches 25.4 x 20.3 x 12.7 cm M 69s 11

Arunachal Pradesh, India - Monpa, Apa Character circa early 20th C. Wood 8 x 6.25 x 4.25 inches 20.3 x 15.9 x 10.8 cm M 82s



Himachal Pradesh, India circa early 20th C. Wood 12 x 7.25 x 6 inches 30.5 x 18.4 x 15.2 cm M 175s



Himachal Pradesh, India circa early 20th C. Wood 12.5 x 9 x 4 inches 31.8 x 22.9 x 10.2 cm M 221s



Himachal Pradesh, India circa mid-20th C. Wood 11 x 7 x 4.5 inches 27.9 x 17.8 x 11.4 cm M 156



Nepal circa 19th C. Wood 9 x 6.5 x 4 inches 22.9 x 16.5 x 10.2 cm M 193s


Nepal circa 19th C. Wood 10 x 7.5 x 3 inches 25.4 x 19.1 x 7.6 cm M 194s


Nepal circa 19th C. Wood 12 x 7.5 x 3 inches 30.5 x 19.1 x 7.6 cm M 195s 25

Nepal circa 19th C. Wood and animal skin 10 x 8 x 4 inches 25.4 x 20.3 x 10.2 cm M 162s



West Nepal circa 19th C. Wood with ash patina 12 x 6 x 3.5 inches 30.5 x 15.2 x 8.9 cm M 107 29

Nepal circa early 20th C. Wood 10 x 7 x 3.5 inches 25.4 x 17.8 x 8.9 cm M 108s


Nepal circa late 19th/early 20th C. Wood and metal 10.5 x 6 x 4 inches 26.7 x 15.2 x 10.2 cm M 225s



Nepal circa late 19th/early 20th C. Wood 11.75 x 5.75 x 3 inches 29.8 x 14.6 x 7.6 cm M 224s



Nepal circa early 20th C. Wood 11.5 x 10.4 x 5.5 inches 29.2 x 26.4 x 14 cm M 220s



Nepal Circa 19th C. Wood 8 x 6.25 x 4 inches 20.3 x 15.9 x 10.2 cm M 171s and M 170s



Nepal - Middle Hills circa early 20th C. Wood and animal hair 9 x 7 x 4 inches 22.9 x 17.8 x 10.2 cm M 73s



Nepal circa early 20th c. Wood, metal 9 x 5.5 x 6.5 inches 22.9 x 14 x 16.5 cm M 223s



Nepal circa late 19th / early 20th C. Wood, nails, textile 10 x 5.5 x 3 inches 25.4 x 14 x 7.6 cm M 222s





(Previous pages) Drum Nepal, circa mid 20th c. Wood, skin, leather 27.5 x 14.5 x 5 in / 69.9 x 36.8 x 12.7 cm stick: 16 x 5 x 1 in / 40.6 x 12.7 x 2.5 cm Nep 40


(Following pages) Drum Nepal, circa mid 20th C. Wood, skin, leather, paint 21 x 10.5 x 3.5 in / 53.3 x 26.7 x 8.9 cm stick: 19 x 6 x .25 in / 48.3 x 15.2 x .6 cm Nep 39




Shaman Figure Nepal, circa mid-20th C. Wood 20 x 6.5 x 7 inches 50.8 x 16.5 x 17.8 cm Nep 57



Nepal circa mid. 20th C. Copper 25 x 8 x 8 inches 63.5 x 20.3 x 20.3 cm Nep 49



Votive Figure Nepal, circa late 19th / early 20th C. Wood 17.5 x 5 x 4 inches 44.5 x 12.7 x 10.2 cm Nep 53 57





Shrine Figure Nepal, circa early 20th C. Wood 16.5 x 9 x 5 inches 41.9 x 22.9 x 12.7 cm Nep 59


Praying Figure Nepal, circa mid 20th C. Wood 16 x 7 x 5.25 inches 40.6 x 17.8 x 13.3 cm Nep 56



Votive Figure Nepal, circa 19th c. Wood 21 x 5 x 3 inches 53.3 x 12.7 x 7.6 cm Nep 61



West Nepal circa early 20th c. Wood 28.5 x 7 x 5.5 inches 72.4 x 17.8 x 14 cm Nep 35



Copyright Š 2015 CAVIN-MORRIS GALLERY Cavin-Morris Gallery 210 Eleventh Ave, Ste. 201 New York, NY 10001 t. 212 226 3768 www.cavinmorris.com Catalogue design: Sam Richardson & Marissa Levien Photography: Jurate Veceraite

Cavin-Morris Gallery 71 < HIMALAYAN MASKS

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