Prehistoric man has often tried to emulate the fascination for persona, based on the natural human predisposition to have double or multiple identities, since these were believed to possess the power of the supernatural, which could then be used to control the hostile environments in which they lived. In order to achieve this status man has created masks. These take the form of a covering over the face with images usually of another human, animal or imaginative feature made from different kinds of material, usually wood, which can be carved and painted to create images transforming the wearer into another personality. Other substitutes for wood can be used to make masks, such as paper, natural vegetable skin and metal sheet. Masks are the most ancient means of changing one’s identity and assuming a new persona. Hence we come to the definition of ‘mask’: according to experts the word mask came from the Arabic “mashkara” which means “ falsify”. This word most likely entered the Arabic language as msr ,which mean “to Eygptianise” (Nunely and McCarthy,1999). The word ‘mask’ may also have originated from an Egyptian word meaning “to make double” or “to transform”.
The practice of wearing masks and using masks in various rituals has been known to exist since the pre-historic era, 35,000 years ago. Early civilizations around the world such as Mesopotamia, Egyptian & Greco- Roman have records of the use of masks in their societies, a use that has endured until the present time. Thus the practice of making and wearing masks as objects of material culture, has been known to be a main element in the psyche and personification of man. Therefore, masks have been the province of the art of primitive and indigenous peoples all over the world. Never-the-less Malaysia shares a unique mask culture of its own. In Malaysia, several groups of peoples practice the making of masks as part of their traditional culture. Malaysia, which is comprised of Peninsula Malaysia and East Malaysia, including the state of Sabah and Sarawak, is therefore recognised as having its own explicit “culture of the mask”. For example in Peninsula Malaysia one of the indigenous communities, called Senoi, make masks for their dance and healing rituals, whereas the native people of Kayan, Murut and Iban in Sabah and Sarawak also make masks for their religious and funerary rituals. Masks have been known to have existed in Peninsula Malaysia since 1900 (Skeat and Blagden, 1906) and in the state of Sabah and Sarawak for even much longer.
Amongst the exponents of mask making in the Senoi community are two sub-groups comprising the MahMeris and Jah Huts who share similar skills in making masks, since both of these groups come from the same community. Since their culture, religion and beliefs are so similar, sometimes they produce masks that are of identical character .Recently, due to the awareness of tribal arts among international tourists, the resulting brisk business has contributed to the survival of mask making in the region until today. Originally the making of masks among the indigenous peoples of Mah Meri and Jah Hut was for the healing and fertility ritual called Sepili. They created a simple, symbolic mask out of ordinary material which they acquired to facilitate the healing ritual carried out by the Shaman. This symbolic mask, called Sepili, was and is sometimes made of palm fronds ,fruit and flour. In the early fifties, government officers from the Aborigines Department introduced carving tools and some pictures of masks from foreign countries to the community; from that day onward the structure and material of the traditional mask acquired new form. That was the beginning of a new burst of mask creation in the society. The ritual involving mask wearing usually is complemented with community dances, such Joh’oh and also Sewang. The main mask used for the Jo’oh dance is called Moyang Bajos and Moyang Tok Naning. Many more types of masks produced by this group, made from softwood and hard wood in various sizes, are used in their community to illustrate the many types of sickness-spirit which the Shaman engages extensively during the ritual ceremony . However, with the intrusion of modern culture into their community, the importance of masks in their lives has taken a back seat. Consequently the masks have become collectable items for local and international tourists who flock to their villages by the bus load.
Mah Meri is an aboriginal group comprising of three hundred people who live near the sea, thus when they do not work on their masks they usually go to sea as fisherman . Therefore, many of their mask characters are based on the creatures that can be found from the sea or its vicinity such as crab, prawn , eagle spirit and so on . Their counterparts, the Jah Hut, however live in the deep jungle of mainland Peninsula Malaysia, existing as hunters and farmers. They were accordingly inspired by their surrounding: usually Jah Hut carvers characterize their masks based on the animals found in the jungle such tigers, elephants , monkeys and so on.
Before independence the indigenous peoples of Malaya had been marginalized by the majority of the population. This was because they were perceived by many Malaysians at that time as being backward, primitive and naïve, thus their culture and art were never highlighted. The earliest known record of masks amongst the indigenous of Malaysia was written by two English researchers, Skeat and Blagden, by the order of King Of Siam in 1909 and they published it under the title The Indigenous Peoples of Malaya. And in 1925 an old mask was found among the peoples of Mah Meri or Betisi in Pulau Carey and villages near the coastline of the State of Selangor (R. Werner. 1980), on a small river delta near the mouth of the Klang river in Selangor, forty kilometers from the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Sometimes the art and culture of the community coincide with the supply of the materials available, as well as the ideas that can be found in abundance in the local environment. This scenario is typical of the masks of Mah Meri and Jah Hut, since their basic material of Nireh Batu (a kind of tropical hardwood which has a natural rosewood colour) is grown mostly near the mangrove jungle, whilst a kind of softwood found in Malayan jungle (locally known as Pulai) can be found in the deeper jungle.
The idea of mask-making by the indigenous people of Peninsula Malaysia is contrary to the making of sculpture which is more focused on the features and character of the spirits of the ancestors which they call by a number of names such as Bes, Hantu or Moyang .It is believed that by carving the feature of the good spirit, that is the Bes and Moyang, the spirit will give protection and plenty of food to the community. Usually the making of a mask is followed by the dance ritual which will be held at an appropriate time determined by the Shaman or Batin. There are certain masks which are popular amongst the carvers such as the Moyang Tetek Lanjut, the Were Tiger, the Katak Kala and many more in the case of Mah Meri, whilst the Jah Hut usually carve the Bird Mask and the Snake and characters from and within the community itself . Some time ago mask making or carving was only done by the Shaman because they had the authority and expertise needed to interpret and translate the dream or dreams which complement the spirit of the ancestors. Therefore, many traditional forms of masks must conform with the canons and aesthetics of mask carving as related to the aborigines’ worldview, otherwise bad omens will occur to a person or the community if the carver did not get the blessing of the Shaman. There are various sizes of masks in store; some masks are huge (up to five feet in height) such as Moyang Tetek Lanjut or Moyang the Hanging Breast. Usually the normal size of masks is around nine inches to fifteen inches. Some masks, which are popular as a talisman or souvenir, are usually small enough so that it can be carried or kept with the owner at all times. Medium sized masks are usually made for the tourists.
Masks have been a significant component of ritual for these people because they derive from the face painting which was popular among the natives hundreds of years ago. The face painting, or face mutilation, was believed to protect them from the demon and other bad elements in the environment that intended to destroy them. However most of the masks made by Mah Meri and Jah Hut did not have any artificial colouring, instead the natural color of the wood will be regarded as a fine product of their creation. Many type of hardwood and softwood of the Malaysian jungle have been at the service of the aboriginal carver. Most of the carvers are likely to be a sibling or a close relative of the master carver . They become apprenticed at a young age and develop their skill and personal style as they mature. Many master carvers of today, such as Peon a/l Bumbun from Mah Meri and Batin Hitam from Jah Hut have been mentored by their fathers and uncles who were themselves masters in those day.
Since most of the fundamental techniques of carving masks in this society are traditional, being handed down from generation to generation, likewise their tools are also primitive. They usually make their own tools from left-over metal and found objects such as old bottles which together with their ecosystem, sustainable knowledge enables them to produce incredible products. Usually the mask begins by the carver getting a block of wood which he gets by felling a mature tree. When the carver has identified an appropriate tree in the jungle he has to make an offering comprising of incense, cigarettes, fruits and some uncooked rice. After that they have to recite magic word or a mantra in order to get certain indications from their ancestor as to whether that particular tree is good for the mask carving. And if they find a slight trace of disapproval, such as if an owl or bird flew over the tree during the process of cutting down the tree, they have to abandon the work immediately and look for another tree. If they ignore the sign, the mask will not be materialized. Masks were created based on the mythology and folklore of the indigenous society. Indigenous people of Malaysia acknowledge hundreds of folklores which are intended to manage, educate and characterize the community. Through the combination of the folklore and animistic beliefs , they were able to create the tangible form from tangible concepts. Those masks have many features which can be traced from zoomorphic and biomorphic images. Many images have been given surreal character to generate both spectacle and fear. With industrial products encroaching their villages new technology came in handy to the carver. With material such as nylon cable they were able to make the lower jaw of certain masks to enable it to move together with the actor’s lip movements. However, in this age of technology and digitalization most of today’s masks find their way to tourist art markets. Ironically the tourist market has served to sustain the legacy of the aboriginal masks, as we witness today. Unlike the masks of the natives in east Malaysia they have different reason to create masks. The masks of east Malaysia have different forms, sizes and varieties of shapes. Even though there are about twenty main tribes in Sarawak alone that make native art, only four main groups produce high quality art that concerns us. These are the Land Dayak, Sea Dayak, Murut and Melanau. These people make good quality art work in the form of weaving, wood sculpture of totem poles, figural sculpture and, most importantly, they also make ritual masks of their ancestors, as well as masks representing demons and spirits. Incidentally, the masks made by the Iban, Kayan and Murut that were used in the funeral ritual were different from the peninsula aborigines’ masks. Three important characteristics of the Sarawak masks relate to their shape, form and colour. The form of a Sarawak mask varies considerably, but two main types may be distinguished. The first corresponds to a human face, with correctly proportioned eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. The second is a demonic face, ( S.Gill:119:1968 ) characterized by Melanaus, Kayans and Kenyah, resembling distorted, oblong-shaped, human faces with scary images incorporating protruding eyes, a large nose, a tongue extensively jutting out in addition to large ears, which are elongated, made separately and then attached to the head with rattan or mortises in order to make them movable. Most of the masks are painted with bright colours such as red, blue, yellow and white; occasionally real hair is attached to the mask to create a magical charm, which does not occur with Mah Meris or Jah Hut masks. Incidentally, to create an outstanding sculptural sensation some of the demonic faces were decorated with tribal patterns of “Kelawit” which cover some areas of the forehead and the face. This technique developed because of the cannibalism practice of Sarawak natives from a long time ago. This type of mask is called “Udo” while the normal human shape is called the “Kalong” among the Kayan. However the material used to make masks is abundant as Sarawak has a large supply of hard wood such as the famous “Bulian” or local teak and soft wood like Meranti, Jelutong and Pulaie. Some of the Melanau mask characters such as Jin Aprit, Lajau Buau, Antu Panjang, were made from hard wood, thus we can still find them around today. However, masks carved from soft wood disintegrate because of the tropical environment, where high humidity destroys the fiber of such soft woods. It should be noted that a mask is not completed if it is not complement by the dance because, through the movement of dance, the persona of the mask becomes animated. As a result the Kayan and Murut perform the ritual, such as the war dance, which completes the spiritual cycle of the mask.
Masks have endured the transformation of time. Since prehistoric times until today, peoples around the world still create masks for different reasons and functions. The masks carved by Malaysian aborigines have transmitted different spirits to the community, which usually creates a positive result for them. Masks continue to be of relevance in modern society because they determine, at least in part, the identity and the aspirations of a nation. Masks are still worn for a number of reasons; for example during the re-enactments of myths, such as the wild boar mask worn by Kenyah and Kayan as part of the ritual that recreates the introduction of rice by outsiders(F. Kerlouge 62:2004). Even though the masks created by the natives in Peninsula Malaysia and in east Malaysia are different in form, shape and configuration their aims and functions remain closely related to each other.