‘Masks are fascinating objects. You can find them all over the world. Every culture has its own masks, with its own visual language and its own rituals, but there are also great similarities. That says something about what we share as humans: a need to relate to nature, life and death through disguise.”
Visual artist Carmen Schabracq (1988) makes masks herself. These are exhibited, but they are also used in performances. She made the masks for performance collective Urland The End Times Revuewhich premieres Friday.
The dual application makes masks special, she says in her Amsterdam studio. “You can hang masks on the wall for their aesthetic value. But originally they have a spiritual or theatrical function, in a ritual or performance, in which the wearer takes on a different form.”
She conducted research into rituals and celebrations associated with masquerades in various countries. “The Mexican visual language is very inspiring. On the Day of the Dead, the dead come to visit the world of the living to celebrate with them. The masked people embody these deaths while partying.”
In many places in the world, masked rituals are associated with life and death and major events. “For example, a mask can serve to allow an ancestor to descend into you and to represent that. The mask then gives superhuman powers.”
In Bulgaria she saw that masquerades are focused on the course of seasons. “At the end of winter, the evil spirits of winter are exorcised, including masks of bears, devils and goats. It’s funny how that works: as soon as a devil comes across an image of himself, he gets scared. With a devil you scare the devil.”
A paper mache sculpture can have as much value as bronze art
Carmen Schabracq visual artist
Masks are often intertwined with the cycles of man and nature. “Many masquerades are about fertility and evoking a good harvest. In Mexico, in the state of Guerrero, men dress up as jaguars in different colors at a party. The men fight each other and the winning color is the color corn they plant that year.”
There are also other applications: “In Mexico and some African countries you see masquerades around past oppression. In Mexico, for example, there are masks of white men: the Spanish ex-colonizer. Then the masquerade seems to serve as a form of trauma processing.”
The Netherlands also has mask traditions, especially during carnival. “There are also masquerades on December 6 on various Wadden islands. On Terschelling it is called Sunderum. Women and children stay indoors, men go around masked to drive away evil spirits.”
Masks are often classified as folk art or primitive art. For Schabracq it is not a question whether masks are art. “At the Rietveld Academy, my aesthetics and way of working were not very appreciated by some teachers. A teacher said when I received my diploma: ‘Well, now you can finally go into the theater.’ I still sometimes encounter that condescension.”
Her love for masks arose at an early age. “My father is a visual artist, my mother a fashion designer. We had a lot of art at home, including masks on the walls. I liked to dress up. I put my sister in a suit and then we did a play. But I also once went to school as a panther for weeks.”
The Rotterdam theater collective Urland asked her to contribute to the apocalyptic stories The End Times Revue to make masks. Schabracq explains what her masks mean and how they are made.
“Things are bad in the world and man is the instigator. This mask shows an archetype, made as a second skin. The blond hair refers to a Western person, because the depletion of the earth and excessive consumption at the expense of the environment mainly happens in the West.
“People often find masks scary. I don’t, but I understand that it can come across that way. You can no longer read someone’s facial expression when there is a mask in front of them. You can’t see the danger coming.
“In this case, the blond hair softens the frightening effect. Otherwise the image is too unambiguous for me, too black and white. A person is layered. Everyone has many faces, especially in the eyes of others. Christianity has cultivated bad or good thinking in the West, but in many other cultures people and masks have many more sides.
“Exuberant colors and the material also provide nuance. This mask is crocheted. I got my love for needlework from my mother and grandmother. Crocheting is a good way to make sculptural shapes with textiles.”
“This wolf is one of the figures in Ragnarok, the Icelandic myth about the end of time. Wolves are beautiful animals.
“The large teeth make this wolf dangerous. That’s for the show. I have also created sweeter wolves, like the wolf that suckled the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus: a mother who, in addition to being dangerous, is also caring and protective.”
“This is Kali, the goddess of destruction and death from Hindustani mythology, but also of fertility and change. She is often depicted with a chain of bitten off heads. Hence the blood on her teeth.”
“My version of Death, made of papier-mâché. All hard masks in this series are made of papier-mâché. In the past, working with papier-mâché, like crocheting, was often seen as an inferior technique with inferior material. Textile art was dismissed as ‘women’s art’. That is why I like to use these materials, it is one of the feminist aspects in my work. A sculpture made of papier-mâché or textile can have as much artistic value as art made of bronze.”
“According to an apocalyptic myth among the Maoris, a frog drank all the water in the world. The earth became dried out. An eel came up with a trick. It started writhing and the frog found it so funny that he laughed out loud and spit out all the water again. The earth flooded. That was the flood.”
“This mask is a mix of elements and influences. The snake is lemniscate, symbol of eternity, but also a snake that bites itself in the tail. The feathered serpent (Quetzalcoatl) is a mythical figure in Pre-Colombian and Aztec culture, a creator god who makes the sun rise every day. But sometimes also a symbol of death.
“The statue also refers to the Mbulu Ngulu, a protector of the dead on whom my father inspired a statue, based on a Gabonese example.
“I just thought the red fur was beautiful. But turquoise is a magical color among the Aztecs.”
“This mask is inspired by the plague mask. I thought about the Black Death, corona: major viral diseases that threaten humanity. The plague mask offered protection, but especially against the stench. The beak was stuffed with fragrant herbs and flowers so that the doctors wearing the masks did not faint from the intoxicating air. So the form is practical rather than symbolic. In Venice the form has been preserved in Carnival.
“It is made of linen, stiffened with glue. Black and dark: I thought it suited it. With a secret red tongue underneath.”
“This mask is based on the Wendigo, a snow monster with an insatiable gluttony among the Algonkin, an indigenous people in North America. He ate people. And when he could no longer eat people, he ate himself. Gluttony links him to the depletion of the earth by man, and thus to the end of time.”
“Floods occur in apocalytic stories in all kinds of cultures around the world. But how do you portray a flood? I thought that life jacket was a funny solution.”
“Nothing says ‘end times’ like the atomic bomb. I came across an African mask with a large radio on the head. I thought that was also possible: make it literal. So then I made a rocket with the mushroom on it when an atomic bomb exploded. There’s something sweet about that ball too.
“The shape of the eyes, nose and mouth has the aesthetic of an African mask. The fact that it is also reminiscent of a gas mask is not conscious.”
“A devil with hairy horns, based on Eastern European devil masks. Many devil figures have a tongue hanging out of their mouths. There is something wanton about it, the devil as a jester. For Christians, the devil is the embodiment of evil, but he is also childishly naughty and playful.”
The End Times Revue, by Urland/ Theater Rotterdam. Premieres November 3. Tour until December 17. Info: urland.nl A Nice Death, in Museum Tot Zover, Amsterdam. Group exhibition including work by Carmen Schabracq. Until February 11. Info: totzover.nl
A version of this article also appeared in the November 2, 2023 newspaper.