If you live in Denmark, and just happened to be at home yesterday, you might be surprised by groups of costumed children ringing your doorbell, singing songs and asking for money, and promising mischief if you do not comply. Yesterday, you see, was ‘Fastelavn’, the Danish counterpart to Halloween, which is a day where children dress up in costumes, stuff their little faces with pastries, and take turns to beat a barrel full of candy with a bat (in olden days, the barrel contained a live cat – which would sadly not stay alive for long). Fastelavn was originally a day of celebration and feasting before the 40 days of Lent, which precedes Easter. But now, it has become an opportunity for children (and frankly a lot of drunken adults) to put on a mask and become someone else; a superhero, a ninja, a lobster, a lion, a rock star, a princess, a giant pencil, a Jedi – you name it. And maybe the mask, the face paint, or the outfit allows us to, for a few hours, become a slightly different person? To be a little more brave? A little more outspoken? A little more fun? Or maybe even a little more ourselves?
Masks are not something reserved for Fastelavn or Halloween; the trick of assuming another face, and for a moment becoming a different person, is something we see all over the world. The somewhat scary looking mask above is a so-called pwevo mask (also known as a pwo, nalindele, or mubanda mask), and comes from Zambia, where it is used in a rite of passage called the Mukanda. When a man dons the pwevo mask, he not only assumes the identity of an ancestor – he in fact becomes a woman; the original, perfect woman, who teaches the young men entering adulthood about the ways of women.
But what is it about masks and costumes, which lets us become someone else, when we wear them? Do they allow us to unleash something we always had within us? Or do the masks and costumes contain an agency in their own right? Perhaps it is a mix of the two. But one thing is for certain. In the exhibition The Lives of the Dead at Moesgaard Museum, there is a display with five pwevo masks, hanging in a glass case. And even separated from the dancers, who used to wear them, they seem to carry an identity in their own right. As frightening as they are beautiful, they are certainly not dead things.