A gruesome monster leers out at you from the darkness. His face is covered in pimply pink warts, his bulbous nose is flared and his open mouth reveals sharp teeth. A third eye in the center of his forehead stares out at you and a crown of skulls wraps around his head. You’ve never seen anything like this before and take a step back.
The name of this ogre-like creature is Begtse Chen, and although he may look menacing, he is actually meant to protect – as long as you’re on his good side, that is. Begtse Chen is one of the most decorated masks on display at the Rubin Museum’s current exhibition, “Becoming Another: The Power of Masks.” Featuring close to 100 masks and costumes from around the globe, the exhibition shows the social function of “becoming another.” Whether used for storytelling or for performance, for religious or public purpose, these masks are part of cultures that consider transformation as more than just a Halloween tradition.
Each of the masks on display is an intricate creation, and each serves a different purpose. Items on display here are from all over the world, including Alaska, Siberia, Tibet, Japan, and Bhutan. With a focus on Himalayan art, the museum tells the story of a culture most Americans are unfamiliar with. “Becoming Another” is one of the few exhibitions here that compares and contrasts artifacts from the Himalayan region with those of other parts of the globe. It provides the opportunity for visitors to see just how exciting and powerful masks and costumes can be.
The mask of Begtse Chen, for example, is large, heavy object composed of paper maiche, fabric, turquoise, and thousands of small coral studs. The label indicates that fewer than ten of these type of masks are known to exist in the world and “roughly six thousand pieces of coral brought in from a distant ocean decorate this extraordinary mask, typically worn by a dancer in 20th-century Mongolia. Begtse Chen is “the protector of the leaders of Mongolian Buddhism, or the Bogda Gegeens” – a creature integral to this particular culture.
There are plenty of terrifying masks on view here, but there are also some more tame-looking creations – including monkeys, jokers, deer, eagles, and human faces. One highlight is a bear or otter mask of Tlingit origin (Northwest American) from the 19th-century that would have been used in ceremony by a shaman connecting to animal spirits. “During a performance, a shaman would seek the help of or take the identity of the spirit—sometimes changing identities several times throughout by changing masks.” The masks on view have been used in shamanistic practices, communal ceremonies, and theatrical performances. A full shaman’s costume is also displayed, complete with feathered headgear, drums and boots. A video helps visitors to see the ritual in action.
Organized by Jan Van Alphen, the Rubin’s Director of Exhibitions, “Becoming Another” features not only the Rubin’s own collection but loans from Newark Museum, Brooklyn Museum, American Museum of Natural History, Harvard University, private collections, and more. A dedicated exhibition website and catalog accompanies the show. Check out the website for an in-depth audio guide that includes and introduction to the exhibition, music from a Tibetan Cham dance, and poetry readings in response to specific works. Visitors are also encouraged to post photos of the show to instagram and twitter with the tag #becominganother, which are in turn posted on the exhibition’s website.
“The Rubin Museum of Art holds a rich collection of visually-arresting masks and costumes from the Himalayas, India and neighboring regions, many of which are rarely exhibited,” said Patrick Sears, the Rubin Museum’s Executive Director.
“The broad scope of the exhibition, drawn both from our collection and other important collections around the world, highlights the universality and timelessness of masks and we look forward to seeing them engage our visitors’ imaginations.”
When you put on a mask, even if it is just for one night out of the year, you truly can become someone – or something – else. The power that masks have to transform ourselves and the people around us, to engage individuals from every culture, time and place, is quite incredible. This exhibition shows just how cross-cultural the idea of a mask can be. The only thing that could have made this exhibition better would be interactive stations where visitors can feel for themselves the true power of similar masks. While there is a small iPad station that allows visitors to take pictures of themselves behind a digital mask, and various lecture and crafting programs are available, some in-exhibition activity stations would be a nice addition. Head to the Rubin Museum today to see this great international collection of transformative works of art. The exhibition is open through February 8, 2016.