Apr 22, 2013
We’re pleased to announce that a new paperback edition of our beautifully illustrated book, Masks: The Art of Expression, is published today.
From ancient times to the present day, masks and the practice of masquerading have exerted a powerful fascination among people around the world. Through their ability to conceal, reveal and transfigure, masks have become a near-universal phenomenon yet their nature, functions and meaning of these disguises are strikingly different across cultures.
In ritual and religious use, as today in Africa or Oceania, mask-wearers may be thought to be possessed by – or even become – a spirit or a god. In ancient Egypt, funerary masks were intended to equip the dead with divine powers and attributes, but the masks used in Japanese Noh plays or in ancient Greek drama helped to portray character. The masks themselves are extraordinary objects made from every kind of material. Beautiful, elaborate, fierce, grotesque or elegant, they demonstrate the creative skills and aesthetics of many different periods and cultures.
This updated edition of a classic book showcases an array of magnificent masks from the British Museum’s collection and beyond. Including examples from eight principal areas – Africa, Oceania, Latin America, the Northwest coast of America, Japan, classical Greece and Rome, Egypt and Europe – Masks: The Art of Expression provides a fascinating insight into the great variety of masks and masking traditions around the world.
We’ve included here a short selection of masks featured in the book.
The mask of Hanna is one of the most well-known masks from Nō. It is used for the character of a jealous and revengeful demon who was once a beautiful woman. The eyes, originally of gilded metal, glare out, the mouth is drawn wide open in a ferocious snarl and the horns embody evil. Only the faint trace of eyebrows high on the forehead and the suggestion of delicate features indicate her former beauty. H. (without horns) 20.3 cm. British Museum 1946,1216.2. Donated by C. Winch.
North American wood mask, probably representing a creature of spirit associated with a specific family tradition in the Winter Ceremonial. Collected, before 1868, at Fort Rupert, the Hudson’s Bay Company post at the northern end of Vancouver island, where the Kwakwaka’wakw met and traded with other peoples from further north. H. 20 cm. British Museum Am.1562. Donated By Henry Christy.
Dance mask in the form of a demon’s face. Papier mâché covered with clay. Chorida, India, 1994. H. 57 cm; W. 51 cm; Donated by Daniel J. Ryscroft. British Museum As1995,17.3.
North American mask of wood and fur, from the Makah, Washington State, representing Bookwus, Wild Man of the Woods. 20th century. H. 23 cm. British Museum Am1941,01.1. Donated by Harry Geoffrey Beasley.
Text and images © The Trustees of the British Museum.
Masks: The Art of Expression is edited by John Mack and is published by the British Museum Press at £25. For further information, please visit the British Museum shop website.