From one encounter, years ago, with an image in a book published decades before, a documentary about mid 20th century Papua New Guinea, I became fascinated by the concept of one particular kind of mask.
Not the carved wooden head sized ones that are fairly common in souvenir shops, I saw a dim, black & white photograph, captioned "body masks in Men's hut" and they have stayed with me. I return to this utterly unique image time & time again; these are life-size scale, so these are woven full body masks - one stands inside them. The photo showed them in storage in the Men's Hut, a place forbidden to women, propped up by forked sticks and branches, kept only for men to use when leading the tribe through ceremonial rights of passage. They have a comanding presence and I've never seen anything like them before, or since. I've made a lot of them and its still has me intrigued and obsessed.
The general concept of masks can be regarded as one of the simplest and oldest in human social theory. Yet it is also connected to the most difficult issues about the interaction between the self and the social world. The critical debate on redefinitions of contemporay gender and sexuality can be read here and for the role masks play in contemporary politics or "the political use of masks as a strategic critique of the currently dominant form of political subjectivity based on identity" can be read here.
But my interest is personal, my own history, memories, demons. But at an elementary level, when I've spoken with other women about a mask that one steps inside, that completely houses one's body like armour, it feels obvious to them too. This is a compelling notion, that it's women upon whom the burden of personal presentation falls most heavily, and to whom the purview of always being in compliance with immediately current fashion is paramount, and yet who are judged and found wanting by our society at large for their efforts. The beauty of this mask solution is irresistible. It looks both dangerous, menacing even, and a haven, a refuge inside of which we are hidden and protected; the honesty of this approach is divine. We wear them everyday and yet they say nothing of us really. Its equally fair to say full body cladding is a demonstration, an explanation, a projection of self & an indication of origin. Maybe our masks are what we mean; maybe they illustrate our meaning. Then we decorate the trap. Feminism aside, its a powerful notion.