Masks of Resilience
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
By Courtney Maxwell-Alves, Manager of Development
“Concealment and revelation, identity and representation, myth and magic – these are intimately connected to masks.”
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Five days later, Canada closed its borders to international visitors, and life really hasn’t been the same since. Yet, arts and culture remain a driving force of resilience, providing ways to cope and understand the world around us when it seems impossible to do so. Inspired by the upcoming exhibition entitled Breathe. at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, as well as the strange, scary, and almost unbelievable times we find ourselves in, I determined it was important for us to look a little more closely at the history of masks and why this remains relevant today.
Humans have been making masks for millennia. The oldest masks that have been found date back to the Neolithic Era and demonstrate the significance of ceremonies such as funerary rituals (e.g. death masks in ancient Egypt).
Masks, and the ceremonies associated with them, have been used to worship, welcome new seasons, disguise, frighten, conceal and reveal, communicate and connect, record and tell stories, inspire, entertain, and protect. They have been made and used by everyone, for a multitude of reasons: mask making transcends culture, time, and place.
But, what is a mask? Generally, a mask is described as some kind of face covering used to either disguise or protect the wearer. In this definition you may think of a Halloween mask or a hockey mask. Masks can also be the head of a figure or an animal used in cultural rituals or theatre, a “false face” worn at carnivals, and a “face” or sculpture made from a mold. Masks can be sacred and provide a link to the past (e.g. masks used to perform the Dance of the Conquest ceremony in Guatemala), they can be fun and used for fantasy and masquerades (e.g. Venice Carnival, Comic Con), and they can serve as a first line of defense (e.g. gas masks during World War I, medical/non-medical masks during a pandemic).
There are so many different ways to define what a mask is, but rarely can that definition be divorced from art and culture. Mask making is a skill representing traditional knowledge. For example, in Uttarakhand, India, masks are made to bring life to gods and goddesses, and mask making is considered a sacred skill that is typically passed down through families.
Another example, taken from the Whyte Museum’s Art and Heritage database, is the mask making tradition of the Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest. The untitled mask below was carved by Doug Cranmer (1927-2006), an artist, skilled carver, and a Hereditary Chief of the Namgis Nation. This mask is part of the Gems Within: 50 Years of Collecting exhibition in the Founder’s Gallery at the Whyte Museum, and includes the following description:
“For the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest, winter was a time of dance and performance. Among Northwest Coast Peoples, including the Kwakwaka’wakw, Makah, and Nuu-chah-nulth, masks were an essential part of important winter ceremonies, which re-enacted the adventures of hero-ancestors and spirit beings in the mythological past. The rights to these ritual dances were passed down in families as treasured privileges…”
As we are familiar with today, if worn correctly, masks can also be functional and protective. One of the most interesting things for me from the last six months is the contemporary connection to past viruses, notably the 1918-1919 Influenza outbreak, which killed between 20 and 100 million worldwide. Among other public health measures, wearing a non-medical mask was mandated across Canada (and elsewhere), including Alberta. As you can see from the below image, residents of Banff in 1918 also wore masks, and like today some were creative in the way they wore them.
Whether we wear a mask to celebrate, worship, or protect, human connection is a central theme to the mask story and to the upcoming Breathe. exhibition at the Whyte Museum. So, too, is resilience in the face of plagues and pandemics, something humans have experienced and overcome throughout history. As we sit in the middle of a current pandemic, I am grateful to know this.
Co-curated by Métis artists Nathalie Bertin and Lisa Shepherd, Breathe. is a collection of traditionally crafted masks demonstrating resiliency through the 21st century. Using Facebook as a platform to connect and share, Bertin and Shepherd invited Indigenous artists to create masks that reflected emotions felt during COVID-19. Recognizing the global impact, the call was expanded to include any artist to create a mask reflecting their own culture and practice. This ingenious project and collection of masks make connections to our shared past, present, and future. This exhibition beautifully demonstrates the significance of art and craft, culture, traditional skills, and the universality of resilience. The masks and the stories associated with, from fear, sadness, hope, and love, are unique, beautiful, and particularly poignant today.
Using a variety of traditional and non-traditional materials, the 45 masks that make up the Breathe. exhibition take my breath away. Towanna Miller-Johnson’s Corona Covid mask, with traditional Indigenous motifs and reference to the plague doctor, made me gasp the first time I saw it. The sheer talent and thought that went into creating these masks will stop you in your tracks. And so they should. This project not only called upon artists to provide visual representations and reflections of the COVID-19 experience through masks, but it also calls on the viewer to reflect on their own emotions and resilience in the face of a pandemic.
After all, masks are about human connection.
Breathe. is now open at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. Following COVID-19 protocols, come see and experience the masks for yourselves – you’ll be glad you did!
Museum Hours (closed Monday to Wednesday)
Thursday – Friday, 12 to 6 p.m.
Saturday – Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m.
Endnotes:  Exhibition: "Masks, Other Worlds" held at Crafts Museum, Delhi: April 2013. Accessed online on September 14, 2020 (https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/masks-other-worlds/KALi-66YoqD6KA).
 Belting, Hans. Face and Mask: A Double History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, pp.32-37. https://books.google.ca/books?id=sxL6jwEACAAJ&lpg=PP1&pg=PP3#v=onepage&q&f=false.
 “Mask,” Merriam-Webster. Accessed September 10, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mask.  Exhibition: Mukhota: Mask Making and Craft, Traditions from Uttarakhand created by Project FUEL, 2018. Accessed online on September 14, 2020 (https://artsandculture.google.com/story/UwUxZtP0_KKS3A).
Belting, Hans. Face and Mask: A Double History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017, p. 35 (screenshot taken by author September 10, 2020).
Gas Mask. 1916 – 1916. fibre; metal; glass; rubber. 23.0 (b) x 22.0 (a); 8.5 (b) x 65.0 (a) (inclusive); 25.0 (b) cm. Gift of Pearl Evelyn Moore, Banff, 1979. 104.51.0001 a,b. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Sarain Stump (1945 – 1974, Canadian). Untitled. n.d. wood; feathers; paint; skin. 16.5 x 4.0 x 6.3 cm. Gift of Catharine Robb Whyte, O. C., Banff, 1979. StS.06.04. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
Doug Cranmer (1927 – 2006). Untitled. prior to 1970. cedar; paint. 17.0 x 16.0 cm. Purchased from Quest, Banff, 1969. CrO.06.01. Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.
“Banff Honor Flag” Victory Loan Float [note: influenza masks], 1918, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Dave White family fonds (V681/A/1/pa-115)
Towanna Miller-Johnson (Kahnawake, Q.C.), Corona Covid (detail), 2020, Photographer: Nathalie Bertin, 38 x 15 x 17.8 c.m., No. 20-006