With "The Awakening" being performed in Willits this week, I'm very sorry that I won't be there to see it in person, but very sure it will be spectacular! Thank you to Ann Waters, Mana Youngbear, Janie Rezner, Ileya Stewart, and the Cast! Thinking about sacred masks and theatre, I felt like excerpting an article I wrote about the subject back in 2000. Circle round!
THE ART OF THE CIRCLE
THE ART OF THE CIRCLE
"The primary function of the mask is to unite the indwelling wearer (and the observer) with a mythic being, or as Jung would say, 'an archetypal power'. The mask, as we have found in our own work, becomes a transformer of energy, a medium of exchange between ego and archetype. Thus in traditional societies one finds the taboos surrounding the mask, its recognition as a power object."
Stephen Larsen, The Mythic Imagination
In the 80’s when I was in graduate school I joined a group of women artists. Although I was a visual artist, I wanted my work to be a shared art form, participatory as our group was when we meditated, shared our work, and made moon rituals. I sought ways to share the process beyond having an “audience”, and in the process of my own process, I began to seek transpersonal experience.
I believe all arts have sacred roots. "Everything was once made for the greater meaning and use of the tribe" Sarah Mertz, an artist I interviewed said to me. "A spoon was more than a spoon, and a sacred pot was also used to store grain in - because they understood there had to be a weaving between the material world and the other worlds in order to live right and well. An artist was one of those who did the weaving. Except they didn't think of themselves as artists in the way that we do."
Prehistoric petroglyphs, within this understanding, were touchstones, sympathetic magic for the hunt, for fertility, for healing, a way to contact the Earth Mother. Traditional cultures today continue this magical practice in their arts. Tibetan sand paintings, like the sand paintings by Navajo medicine people, are prayers, offerings released to do their work in the spirit realm and then ritually destroyed. When I studied mask arts in Bali, I found the Balinese had no understanding of our western discourse on the "meaning" of art....the use of temple masks, to them, was a way to refresh their contact with the deities of their Hindu religion. Certainly the origins of Greek theatre are rooted in ritual as well.
"Within these traditional participatory traditions" performance artist Rafael Montanez Ortiz has commented, "there was no passive audience. That’s a recent idea. Ancient art process was a transformative process. It wasn’t a show, it wasn’t entertainment." Ritual enactment, with masks and dance, was one of the primal ways people petitioned the gods, enacted rites of passage, and achieved heightened states of consciousness since time immemorial. Although historians may view tribal masks as "art objects", their original use was as "power objects", vessels for the in-vokation ("joining with) of the spirits. They were meant to be threshold tools that literally "brought the gods to earth" in order to bless and instruct the tribe. As such, sacred masks were never made lightly - there were important procedures to be followed, including choosing the right materials from the right place at the right time, asking ancestral spirits what kind of mask they required for specific ceremonies, and consecrating the finished work. A great deal of psychic preparation was necessary, and masks were activated and de-activated with great respect.
An artist I know once told me of an African mask at the Museum of Art in Milwaukee that, legend had it, sweated. She said she went to view it over a number of days, and sure enough, there it was, if carefully observed, sweating away. How is it possible something like that can occur in a glass case before hundreds of people unnoticed? Magic is literally on display!
Among native peoples of central Mexico, masks used for corn and rain dances were destroyed after a number of years, because they believed that they accrued too much power over time, and could become dangerous as the spirit of the deity increasingly inhabited the mask. This same sensibility is found in Noh Theatre. Noh masks are created according to traditions that go back many generations, and represent stories that have firmly become animated by the mask. Actors will often sit for days with a mask, creating fusion with the character. And in Bali, they are kept in the Temple, where they are purified before and after performances.
I have sometimes felt, when working with masks, I joined a mysterious network of invisible collaborators. Synchronicities, it seems to me, are part of that grand mythic conversation. The mask I made for Kali is such a story.
Approaching 50 I needed to release old, self-destructive ways of being in order to gain a more mature empowerment. My mask for Kali symbolized my desire for change. I wanted to create a dance for the new mask, and I vividly imagined a dancer twirling with fire at her very fingertips. But I had no idea of how this could be actually accomplished. So my vision of a fire dancer remained in my sketchbook.
A year later, I moved to California and opened a gallery. I hung the mask for Kali in the opening show, and in the course of the evening I noticed a young woman standing rapt before it. As we talked, I learned she was a professional dancer. “Would I be interested in doing something with her?” she asked. She showed me a tattoo of Kali on her midriff, and told me specialized in fire dancing!
And so, a month later, my friend Serene Zloof danced the mask of Kali at our next opening, flames bursting from all her fingers.
Drissana Devananda also danced the mask of Kali in two events. Drissana has been a life long practitioner of Hindu Tantric dance and philosophy. "When we create rituals," she said, "we're really praying. It's a way to remember. We're physical emanations of the Goddesses, extensions of them. Not bodies seeking the spirit, but spirits seeking bodily experiences. Sacred dance is about re-membering that we function from our whole bodies, the "body mind".
A sacred theatre, in this understanding, like the cycles of nature and the serpentine symbolism always associated with the ancient goddesses, is about participating within an aesthetic of "circulation". Because “circularity" is the very essence of the Great Mother. The wheel of the year and the moon's passages take place within the great seasonal circle of nature, water and wind move across the landscape like a sinuous snake, life spirals out and then in again in an ever expanding spiral. All things circle. (copyright Lauren Raine MFA 2000)