Saving Face




IN 2014, Tutankhamun’s feted funeral mask was mishandled by museum staff. The boy king’s precocious beard had come asunder. In the dead of night, curators hastily bonded it with a quick-drying epoxy, leaving behind a ring of yellow resin. It was more than four months before the damage was reported.

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Silent filmgoers were said to have screamed, even fainted, when Mary Philbin removed the mask of Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera, exposing the skeletal face that Chaney — a master of makeup — had painstakingly fashioned.

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There are over 400 unique masks in Noh theater, each carved from Japanese cypress wood. Noh dramas fall into one of five categories:

God
Warrior
Beautiful woman
Madwoman
Demon

Until recently, women were barred from performing.

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Donald Trump told his advisors that wouldn’t be wearing a mask, as it would “send the wrong message.” At a mask production plant in Arizona, he declined to cover his mouth and nose. He did, however, don protective goggles.

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Samurai warriors wore masks (men yoroi) over the lower half of their faces. The masks bore a knowing grin to unnerve their opponents.

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The Anti-Mask League of San Francisco was born out of a city ordinance during the 1918 influenza pandemic. The League, led by suffragette Mrs. E. C. Harrington, called for the mayor’s resignation if the mandate wasn’t lifted. San Francisco’s mayor and chief health officer were fined for not wearing masks at a crowded boxing match. Dr. Hassler, the health czar, said it must have slipped off while he was smoking a cigar.

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El Santo, the legendary luchador, was never unmasked in his 40-year wrestling career. He was laid to rest wearing his silver mask.

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“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth,” wrote Oscar Wilde.

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Zorro, the masked crusader of pulp comic fame, is said to have been inspired by California outlaw Joaquín Murrieta. As the story goes, Murrieta was beaten, his wife raped and murdered, at the hands of white prospectors. A retaliatory urge spurred his bandit turn.

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Richard Prince’s Nurse Paintings were inspired by dime store romance novels. The women in the paintings wear white caps and surgical masks. Sometimes their lipstick bleeds through the fabric. In 2016, Runaway Nurse was sold at auction to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for $9.7 million.

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In 18th-century Venice, the mask was the great leveler. Wearers were liberated from the tyranny of conscience and could gamble, fornicate, and pilfer outside the prying eyes of the almighty. Even men and women of the cloth took part in the decadence. The only reprieve from the daily masquerade came during the 40 days of Lent.

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Il Capitano, the boastful soldier of commedia dell’arte fame, has a bulging nose and recites lurid tales of battle. But when he draws his sword, the only blood ever shed is his own.

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“Wicked mask, impugner of honesty, inimical to gravity, ruin of every charge the Christian soul must keep within and without,” wrote Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan. He was later canonized as a saint.

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Wallet, phone, keys, mask …

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After coming down from Mount Sinai, Moses wore a protective veil over his face. The reflected light of god was so great that no one could look him straight in the eye.

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The Qur’an, contrary to popular belief, makes no explicit mention of women covering their faces.

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Who could have guessed that Guy Fawkes would spawn an army in his image? The failed architect of the Gunpowder Plot is a global symbol of anti-authoritarian movements. However, the rights to his likeness are owned by Warner Brothers, who receives a handsome fee for every mask sold.

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Character masks, according to Marx, are the social roles we act out under capitalism, alienating us from our true selves. Mind you, this was Karl, not Groucho, whose iconic mustache and eyebrows were styled with greasepaint.

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Purveyors of facial recognition technology, recognizing a threat to their bottom lines, have been forced to modify their algorithms to compensate for the lost data.

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Are masks a sign of presence or absence? Of freedom or censorship?

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Possessed by ancestral spirits, the Duk Duk dancers of Papua New Guinea served as judge, jury, and executioner. Their tall conical masks have whirling eyes and a feathered finial; the round, plumed costumes suggest some strange, equatorial fruit. Christian missionaries took it upon themselves to retire the Duk Duks and install a judicial system more agreeable to them.

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It was three movies into the Friday the 13th series before Jason Voorhees adopted his iconic hockey mask. Until then, he had worn a sack over his head.

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The Cleveland Torso Murderer targeted victims at the margins of society. Unable to identify the bodies, police cast plaster death masks of the victims and displayed them at the 1936 World’s Fair. To this day, many of the dead remain nameless.

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During the Spanish Inquisition, the accused wore conical paper hoods, known as a capirote, as a form of public humiliation. The color of the hood signified the gravity of the offense. Red meant you were condemned to death. The white capirote hood was later adopted by the Ku Klux Klan.

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Garrett Morgan, inventor of the gas mask, led a 1916 mission to free workers from collapsed tunnel underneath Lake Erie. Thanks to Morgan’s creation, the surviving workers were guided to safety. Morgan, a Black man, was absent from the honoring ceremonies and written out of local news stories lauding the rescue.

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A Black man in Ohio was picked out of a police lineup by six bank tellers. The man maintained that he had nothing to do with the recent string of robberies, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. The true culprit, it was later discovered, was a white man wearing a mask purchased from a Hollywood costume shop.

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In my hometown of Rochester, police put a hood over Daniel Prude and pressed down on his head until he stopped breathing. The union president said the officers followed their training “step-by-step.”

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Black Lives Matter protesters have taken to wearing masks that read I Can’t Breathe. These were the final words Eric Garner, suffocated by police, and later George Floyd, who suffered the same end.

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No one knows the true identity of “The Man in the Iron Mask,” hidden in French prisons for more than three decades. Voltaire maintained he was the illegitimate brother of Louis XIV, sealed away to thwart a contested throne.

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The first face transplant was completed by French surgeons in 2005. The operation to replace her nose, lips, and chin lasted 15 consecutive hours.

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How long before the beneficiary recognizes the face in the mirror as their own?

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The False Face Society of the Haudenosaunee nation used wooden masks to remedy illness. For services rendered, the masks were gifted a sachet of tobacco and hot corn mush.

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The Shalako dancers tower over the Zuni people: 10 feet tall with rolling eyes and snapping beaks. Their origins remain a mystery, yet can be seen in rock carvings from centuries ago. The Shalako are divine beings that bless new houses and bring good fortune. The dancing begins at dusk. The Shalako move up and down in steady, hypnotic rhythms. Their feet pound at the hard earth. Zuni families watch through open windows. If the Shalako loses its footing and falls, the onlookers scatter, as this augurs coming disaster. Time becomes an expression of movement. Children grow tired, stifle yawns, as night falls. But they understand that to surrender to sleep would sever the fine thread between the congregants and their gods. So they persist, dancer and witness alike, carrying forth into the early morning hours. Waiting for the break of day. For the sun to show its face.

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Ravi Mangla is a writer and community organizer based in Rochester, New York.

 

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