Mask Making


Costume was very important to the Dadaists of Cabaret Voltaire. Their “Dada Evenings” were alive with all kinds of physical abstraction and colourful chaos but the ritual of mask wearing was never just a performance – in fact, it was part of the creative process itself. Hugo Ball describes how the wearing of masks would often inspire spontaneous dancing and movement from the Dadaists and such dancing would in turn necessitate the composition of music and the devising of vocalisations
– whole theatre-ballets spiralling out from cardboard faces.  

The masks of Marcel Janco proved particularly popular and especially effective for the Cabaret. The huge and ambiguous characters of the masks had quite a violent effect on the Dadaists and lent a singularly wild and unpredictable energy to the anti-art philosophy of the players. Dada wanted to rebel against the apparent hypocrisy of western culture so often found itself drawn to the imagery and rituals of more outwardly ancient traditions which they exoticised. Masks inspired by Africa were especially employed and were seen to shake up the bourgeois ideals of middle-class audiences. At the time African customs were presented and discussed within the context of a newly created system of racial hierarchy by European imperialists. This hierarchical system positioned the White race at its top and presented them as the most civilised and advanced whereas the Black race was positioned at the bottom as uncivilised and primitive and as such the closest to animals and nature. Being presented in this context, Dada artists considered African customs to be truer to nature than those of Europe.

Unfortunately, Dada’s celebration of non-European tradition and art was part of the very hypocritical superiority complex which they professed to rage against. Their constant reinforcement of “other-ness” in regards to African traditions and the crude fetishisation of cultural differences maintained the status quo of the time in relation to colonisation and cultural appropriation.

Masks, as a symbol, are now all these years later gaining power in their own right in a western context. Not only in the current pandemic where we wear face masks to protect against the virus, but the social media trends and practices of face-tuning, dog filters and catfishing too. The abstraction of the face through Facebook and Instagram filters has become a cultural norm and one wonders, with what wild and audacious results would the likes of Janco employ modern technology to twist the face of Dada?