Unmasking Masks

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Unmasking Masks is a one-day livestream event on April 16, 2021 that brings 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.

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? 


Image © Bellamy

Event Itinerary

8:00 AM ET Introduction

8:15 AM ET Masks and Carnival Perspectives
Robert Barsky, Caryl Emerson, Martin Eisner 

9:15 AM ET Masks and Medicine
Beth Conklin, Vincent Bruyère, Louise Shaw 

10:30 AM ET Masks and Thinking Images 
Raymond Bellour, Stéphanie Boulard, Claude Dessimond, Anne-Gaëlle Saliot, Erhard Stiefel, Marie Vialle 


1:30 PM ET Masks: From Decorative to Mutant Objects
Emmanuelle Cherel, Lauren Tate Baeza, Maurita N. Poole

3:00 PM ET Perspectives from Latin America 
Pedro Lasch, César Martinez Silva, Caroline Perrée, Esther Gabara 

4:30 PM ET Conclusion

This event is presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Atlanta, Duke University, Georgia Tech, and Vanderbilt University
with support from the Institut Français,
 the Beaux-Arts Nantes Saint-Nazaire (France), Les Maîtres d'Art (France),​ Descripto-Université Polytechnique Hauts-de-France, the Atlanta Global Studies Center – Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta), the High Museum of Arts – Atlanta, Centro de Estudios Mexicanos y Centroamericanos – CEMCA (Mexico).


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