Unmasking Masks was a one-day livestream event on April 16, 2021 that brought together artists, curators, anthropologists, and researchers from across the Southern U.S., France, and Mexico to explore the varied aspects of masks and their unsettling contemporariness.
This online conference was organized by Stéphanie Boulard from Georgia Tech, Anne-Gaëlle Saliot from Duke University, and Robert Barsky from Vanderbilt University with the support of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Atlanta.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought masks, and masking, to the forefront of our daily rituals. Masks belong to the history of medicine and pandemics. They are also intrinsically linked to the funeral rites of all human communities (we can think of the skull of Jericho or the Roman imago) and considered to be at the origin of the visual representation. In the nineteenth century, the craze for celebrity death masks led, for example, to the massive reproduction of funeral casts. The current pandemic strongly reflects that of the Spanish flu that followed the First World War. It was also followed by a collective obsession with masks of all kinds (casts and facial prostheses to remake disfigured faces, gas masks as the attribute of the “carnival and the civilized” according to the surrealist Georges Limbour, African masks claimed by the avant-garde, masks of otherness studied by rapidly developing ethnography … etc).
Masks both invite and resist interpretation. They encompass modern and contemporary modes of representation, and yet, at the same time, reactivate past elements and memorial practices. More than simple tools of simulation and concealing, the practices that surround them might reveal a commonality of the human condition. They have kept being appropriated and re-appropriated, and might even serve as documents and metaphors of colonial and postcolonial domination. Masks are always situated at the intersection of an anthropology of the gaze, a phenomenology of the visible, and a material history.
Unmasking Masks is precisely located at such a crossroad, exploring, through a wide range of events (dialogues with artists and curators, talks, screenings) the manifold aspects of masks and their unsettling contemporariness. How does one consider the mask? Is it a simple object of art intended for decoration? for museum exhibitions? an institution? A ritual? How does it fit into the anthropology of death and the history of medicine and disease? What links does it have with the theory of the visual?’ What does it say about the necessary decolonization of the arts?
8:00 AM EST Introduction
8:15 AM EST Masks and Carnival Perspectives – Robert Barsky, Caryl Emerson, Martin Eisner
9:15 AM EST Masks and Medicine – Beth Conklin, Vincent Bruyère, Louise Shaw
10:30 AM EST Masks and Thinking Images – Raymond Bellour, Stéphanie Boulard, Claude Dessimond, Anne-Gaëlle Saliot, Erhard Stiefel, Marie Vialle
1:30 PM EST Masks: From Decorative to Mutant Objects – Emmanuelle Cherel, Lauren Tate Baeza, Maurita N. Poole
3:00 PM EST Perspectives from Latin America – Pedro Lasch, César Martinez Silva, Caroline Perrée, Esther Gabara
4:30 PM EST Conclusion