We meet ourselves time and again in a thousand disguises. Carl Jung
Journeys along the Sepik River is on exhibit at the University of Wyoming Art Museum. The stunning collection of tribal art from Papua New Guinea is one of five current exhibitions that I had a chance to see while installing Interstitial: Between Earth and Sky.
The ceremonial masks instantly commanded my attention. As an artist, I was intrigued by the attention to detail and the exuberant, inventive use of materials: wood, metal, fabric, animal skin and gourds embellished with with feathers, beads, bone, shells, grasses, twigs, vines. Masterful textile art. I could almost feel the creative spirit that took hold of the makers as they made their magic.
I found the masks profoundly disquieting, in the ways they express the essence of emotions, like joy, sorrow, anger, love, gratitude—universal to all of humankind. Not surprisingly. Mask-making is as old as Paleolithic man. In New Guinea, more than a thousand Stone Age tribes has preserved its unique language, customs and folklore during the past 40,000 years.
Cross-culturally, masks are used in rituals that dramatize life’s many stages, birth to death and re-birth, the fertile and fallow cycles of nature and the cosmos. Tribal members revere the supernatural powers of masks which are, called upon to connect with wisdom of animals and the ancients.
As portals to the spirit world, masks bring past and present together as one place, where traditions and mythology comes alive. A dancer wearing a mask, for instance, is no longer that person, but in essence, a venerated ancestor.
Shamans used masks as mirror to the soul, exploring the subconscious to heal tribal members. Isn’t that what Carl Jung and his modern day followers do—seek guidance in primordial archetypes under the auspices of the collective unconscious?
Perhaps small-scale and modern societies aren’t so very different. Hmmmm?