“We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”-- Andre Berthiaume
My mother always had this fascination with masks.
Whenever we went to the Brooklyn Museum, she always made sure to visit the African mask collection. She loved ceramics and she made masks out of clay, one of which I managed to keep when we cleaned out our parents’ house nearly two years ago.
Unfortunately, like a lot of the things I took out of that place, I had no idea what I had done with the mask after I moved into my new apartment. It could be in any one of several boxes, I thought, and most likely buried beneath a ton of other stuff.
I got to thinking about that mask after I attended a Lunar New Year celebration at the Huntington Library, one of my favorite sites in the L.A. area.
My sister, my cousin and I looked over the list of events, which included music, martial arts and gymnastics, and something called "bian lian" or face changing.
I had no idea what this was and, to be honest, I wasn’t particularly interested—I really wanted to see the kung fu dudes—but the face changing demonstration was close by and just about to start, so I figured, what the hell?
What the hell indeed. Bian lian is an ancient Chinese dramatic art where the performers change brightly colored masks in rapid-fire succession. The artist, Wei Qi Zhong, put on a show that was somewhere between dance and magic, which is a good place to be.
He came out wearing one exotic mask and it seemed like every time he made a move, he was wearing a completely different and equally outlandish disguise.
At one point he merely looked over his shoulder and turned back to the audience to reveal yet another mask. I don’t know how he did it and what’s more, I don’t want to know.
All Shall Not Be Revealed
In this hyper-connected age of instant and predominantly useless information it’s nice to have a little mystery in your life. And nothing on the Internet or television will ever match the excitement of a live performance.
The show lasted about five minutes with the artist gradually revealing more and more of his face until we all saw what he really looked like. It was exhilarating.
I only wish my mom could have been there because I know she would’ve had a great time, given her love for masks.
And that’s when I started thinking about the mask she had made so many years ago. What had I done with it?
My apartment isn’t that big and I knew it had to be around some place. I set aside some time one afternoon and vowed I’d keep looking until I found it.
Then I looked down on my bureau and there was the mask, looking back at me.
I must have unpacked it when I first moved in and since the mask is nearly the same shade of brown as my bureau, it just sort of blended in with its surroundings.
A chill went through me when I held that mask and thought of my mother’s hands taking a lump of clay and bringing it to vibrant life.
It felt strange touching the back, feeling the indentations she had made with her fingers. It was like I was holding her hand.
My mother was a housewife with four children to take care of, but she had a creative side as well and she revealed a very important part of herself by making this mask.
I moved my mother’s mask out to a white table in my living room where it can be easily seen by anyone who comes to my home.
And when they do, I will proudly say that my mother made that.