From a Mask to a Painted Face — Face Painting from Cultural Sources

Geo Magazine, 1980, contained a few dozen photographs of Chinese Opera faces

Painted in 1983. In addition to learning to blend from copying a design like this, these Chinese Opera faces gave me an understanding that facepainting can be a true art, truly transformational, and not just a decorative art.

By Christopher Agostino

Taking a mask image from a cultural source and painting it onto a face is a primary methodology I use for expanding my understanding of what is possible on a painted face. My first steps in that direction were 30 years ago with Chinese Opera faces I saw in an issue of Geo magazine. When I start with images like these that are already makeup designs and re-create them on a face the lessons I am learning are primarily about finding new ways to fit designs to the structure of a face, a new range of imagery, and exploring different application techniques — for example, it was as I tried to imitate the way the red over the eyes fades into the white on the check in this Chinese Opera image that I first learned how to blend — and from Chinese Opera designs I moved onto similar explorations with other cultural sources of painted faces such as those from the Amazon and Papua New Guinea.

Paul Kirk's book "Man as Art" is an inspirational and definitive statement about he remarkable possibilities of bodyart in world cultures.

One of the earliest truly tribal designs I painted on a person (an adult) in a regular party setting - at a corporate family picnic in 1996

A different process is required — and different lessons learned — when the traditional image I start from is a physical mask rather than face or bodyart. Re-creating a physical/sculptural mask as a facepainting brings different challenges because you have to somehow transfer onto the organic shape of a human face the plastic form of the mask, such as the exaggerated geometric shapes on certain African masks, or the extended beak of a wooden Haida thunderbird mask. Here are lessons to be learned about how to place hard shapes on a softly curved face, and to create illusions that seem to alter the structure of the face. I think that the most useful lesson I’ve gleaned from trying to re-create a sculptural mask design, however, is in learning how to boil a mask down to its essence. Since I can’t really duplicate the full mask on a face, what can I achieve with facepainting that has the same impact as the physical mask?

“Spirit masks” is a somewhat generic descriptive term applied to masks from a variety of African cultures worn to bring supernatural spirits to life in traditional rituals. Such masks are intentionally bizarre in appearance with the features of faces and animals distorted into geometric shapes and graphic patterns. Since I can’t make eyes that are cylinders sticking 8″ off the face using just makeup, I’ve had to translate that idea into what I can do, so I’ve focused on using strong geometric linework to make the face startling. As I’m about to start a design like this on a kid I may ask them if it’s ok for me to make them look really, really strange — and usually get an enthusiastic “yes”.

An early attempt at a Spirit Mask, from the event at the Bronx Zoo in 1999

Another early attempt at a Spirit Mask

I have found the complexity of the masks of Native American Northwest Coast (NWC) cultures the most challenging to re-create. Part of the struggle is due to the intricacy of the symbolic imagery on the masks. Whereas masks like the African “Spirit Masks” primarily employ geometric signs and patterns to carry symbolic content — patterns which be simplified and imitated to have the same visual affect even if they don’t have the precise cultural content — NWC masks employ recognizable and pictorial animal imagery much more difficult to duplicate simply.  A traditional NWC mask-maker learns very specific forms to symbolize the mythic characters they depict — such as the precise shape the eye must be for Kwikwis, the eagle of the undersea in the Kwakiutl culture. As Franz Boas states in his book Primitive Art, once the proper symbols are included the artist’s concern becomes the unity and aesthetic achievement of the overall design, and they do it with a remarkable finesse of design style, beautifully fitting the complex imagery onto the shapes of the mask. Like African masks, and the masks of so many cultures, the NWC wooden transformation masks are sculptures worthy of the museums where they sit in cases and hang on walls, but their true raison d’être is just the same as the “Spirit Masks” — to be worn in performance at rituals to bring the gods and myths to life.

I had quite a number of examples available of faces painted at events for the article in my book on African “Spirit Masks”. We spent the summer of 1999 at the Bronx Zoo painting faces inspired by traditional African art for the opening of the Congo Gorilla exhibit, and this style of design has been part of my usual bag of tricks ever since. For the article on Northwest Coast masks, however, I had few examples from faces at events, and none that were successful, so I painted a model in my studio for this one. There is a fundamental cosmology the underlies much of NWC mask culture, and it includes the concept that there was an earlier time in which celestial beings lived on earth and then departed to live in the heavens. These celestial/ancestral beings can return to earth in the guise of humans, and they are depicted in these masks both in their celestial form and in their human form, which is dramatically demonstrated in ritual performances in which these wooden transformation masks will open and alter their shape through ingenious devices to show first the ancestral being and then the inner human. In the NWC coast example for my book, I relied on the humanity of my model (as we facepainters do) and her eyes to exemplify this concept of transformation, from celestial eagle to the eagle in human form.

The Eagle in celestial form, inspired by Northwest Coast Indian culture transformation mask

The Eagle in Human Form

From the Nuxalk culture of the Pacific Northwest, the closed image depicts a celestial bird figure of some sort.

When the mask opens during the ritual performance, revealed inside is the figure in human form (notice how the beak for example is now depicted more like a human nose), and the humanized bird-face is surrounded by a sun-like orb indicting its celestial nature.

Edward Malin's book "A World of Faces: Masks of the Northwest Coast "includes very useful simplified analytical sketches of the traditional mask elements

An early Spirit Mask attempt in which I used this geometric approach to create a specific animal, a baboon face

More recently I have been making Spirit Masks that are more deliberately spooky, and not just strange

The first third of my book, Transformations! The Story Behind the Painted Faces, chronicles my investigation of cultural sources of face and body art, and how I have incorporated those discoveries into my work.

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