Masking is a tradition practiced the world over from earliest records of civilization. From religious ceremonies and funerary customs to fertility rites and preparation for warfare, the concealment and decoration of the human face is a multifaceted convention. Daniel Callahan, a multimedia artist, designer, and filmmaker based in Roxbury, Massachusetts, has explored facial decoration in an evolving practice he calls MassQing. Callahan paints his own face and those of others, he says, “to reveal rather than conceal one’s inner essence.” He will share a MassQuing performance during Friday Nights at NOMA on February 7 at 7 pm as part of a series of programs that evening focusing on African and African-influenced art. He offered NOMA Magazine an explanation of his artistic practice and a preview of the performance.
How did your MassQing performance art series come to be?
I was making music in California with a group of friends, and they had started doing this event called The Masquerade Ball at Stanford University. They wanted to have a ball, but they didn’t want to do the sort of Victorian thing where people came with masks on. Instead, we chose to paint masks on our faces. In the process of having these events I began to look at the indigenous practice of eye decoration. We all started to realize how powerful this was and how deep the cultural ties were to various indigenous cultures all around the world. Masking is done by humans everywhere and this practice of face painting was a way for us to bring all these different cultures together.
We were in the Bay Area of California, which is a really diverse place, but people tend to sort of stay in their enclaves. May friends and I were working with youth through several nonprofits, so we had access to all these different groups of people. The Masquerade Ball became a way to bring all these groups together to share the practice of masking. As a musical group, we started masking pretty much every time we performed because we saw this as a powerful ritual. When I returned to Boston, I was really missing that cultural scene in California, so I returned to masking as my own sort of self self-evaluating, self-realizing process.
I did this project called Month of the MassQ where every day of a month I masked myself and I would post images and thoughts around each mask online to my community — a way to reconnect with something I had somewhat lost after moving from California. It’s really blossomed from there. I learned so much about myself though this thirty-day ritual, classic meditation.
From there I started to mask other people and I realized that masking was this incredible sort of storytelling platform. When you think of the human face, which is my primary canvas, it’s sort of like our own individual media center area. It’s like where we’re receiving information and giving information thousands and thousands of times over the course of the day. And so to use that as a canvas, as what you start out with, really kind of adds complexity. Not only in terms of how you’re actually incorporating the human face and the existing symbols that we have on our face—the eye, the nose, the mouth, the ears—and what that could possibly mean when it’s incorporated into a visual piece. On top of that, this practice requires and demands a sort of interaction and an encounter between people, whether it’s the artist and him or herself, or it’s the artist and the person they’re working with, who they’re masking. It requires this sort of eye contact, this connection, this communion between people.
I have found that three core concepts of masking—identity, communion, and change. I never do the same mask twice. It always has to be sort of representative of where of a person is in the moment. And we’re obviously always changing. Even the washing of the mask is just as important as the creation of it because it’s the recognition that this moment is over and there’s a new moment and that we’re constantly changing.
Many would view masking as a means of concealing one’s identity, but you see it as a way of revealing the inner self. Tell us more about that concept.
It’s flipping our notion of a mask. You can think of a mask as something that we use to hide or conceal our identity, but it can also be used to reveal things about people—to bring what’s inside out. There are a lot of positive and amazing things about masks and what they can do for us. But there are also downsides, in terms of a mask allowing for anonymity, which allows people to operate without any recourse, without any need to follow the norms of society. When we think of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, or groups like Anonymous—and not to say that Anonymous is necessarily a bad group—but masking limits the responsibility that people have when they conceal their face. It allows them to do things that are outside of what we as a society have deemed appropriate.
The masking that I do aims to provide the opposite angle. How can we bring the things that we normally hide or things that we normally keep from society, things that make us vulnerable, in an open way? How can we see ourselves as works of art?
Learn more about Daniel Callahan’s MassQing project in this video from a yearlong collaborative portrait project in 2017.
Do you draw inspiration from masking traditions around the world, or do you focus on one in particular?
My influences have been many. There’s the Nigerian masquerade tradition, which is much more about what is put on your face. In that tradition, it’s much more about covering the entire body. But there are aspects of that ritual that also have found their way into what I do. There’s the Maasai tradition in Kenya. There’s the Ethiopian tradition in the Omo Valley. There’s the Aboriginal traditions in places like Papua New Guinea and Australia. There’s also Japanese theater and many, many other traditions that I’ve studied. My approach is not so much that I am trying to replicate any of these traditions, but rather that I have researched them to learn from them and to learn how a ritual that involves art and the human body can be illuminating in the modern time. Most of these traditions are ancient and they’re dying out. I want to bring them back in this modern day and time and see what they can give us now.
What can NOMA visitors expect of your performance?
I will be masking myself and possibly another person. My idea for this piece is based around my own personal connection to indigenous cultures that my identity stems from, particularly African but Pan-African in general. I am exploring what does it mean, what is the connection between my African American culture and the culture of Africans, of Africanness. And is there connection? How can a relatively small ethnic group like African Americans find connection to an entire continent, Africa, and how sincere and how strong can that bond be? I will be interviewing the curator of African art at NOMA, as well as some of the teens who will participate in answering this question.
What does that connection look like and how is that connection established? How is it kept, how is it maintained? Should it be maintained? And I’ll be using the audio recording of these interviews and playing that along with my masking exhibition. The idea is that this ritual is being performed to bridge the gap between these cultures in a way that allows for a thought exercise, hopefully presenting the audience with something to think about and something to contextualize.
For more information about Daniel Callahan, visit his official website. Callahan and his work have been featured at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston); and the Queens Museum; as well as in publications such as Believer Magazine, The Bay State Banner, and Words Beats & Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture.
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