The mask hides as much as it reveals, “denies as much as it affirms”, as Claude Lévi-Strauss asserted. Very often the holder of a secret, the mask conceals that which only the initiated should know.
The mask’s power also lies in its capacity to incarnate spirits, a link between man and his ancestors, between the visible and the invisible world. It is inseparable from a mythical context which structures the mode of existence and thought of the majority of traditional societies.
Central to the life of a group or a community, the mask, an indispensable intercessor, is always active.
Wayang topeng mask
multi-coloured lightwood, Indonesia, Java, 19th century, 20 x 15 x 15cm, Gift of J. Frenwald, 71.1897.11.8
The island of Java was a place of intense artistic expression closely linked to the court arts (dancing and music) and to the mythical epic tales of the Rāmāyaṇa, the Mahābhārata, and the love story between prince Panji of Jenggala and princess Candra of Kediri. The dance theatre which developed from the 11th century onwards differed from the wayang kulit shadow theatre and took the name of the masks worn by the actors, the wayang topeng. Initially performed at night for aristocracy by professional actors attached to the court of the palaces of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, it became a more popular form of entertainment. The dancers were requested by villagers to celebrate weddings and festivities. However, the wayang topeng conserved its musical, choreographic and costume rules. This mask carved in lightwood represents Gunung Sar, or mountain of flowers, one of Panji’s names. Prince of Jenggala and grandson of King Airlangga, Panji was at the origin of this new form of theatre which told the story of the kingdom. The masks are painted in bright colours according to the beings that they represent. The subtlety of their features and their rich decoration help the audience to understand the development of the story.