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“Masks: Beauty of the Spirits” comes from the Musee du Quai Branly, an institution that former President Jacque Chirac spearheaded toward the end of his long reign. Opened in 2006 to both fanfare and controversy, the Paris museum’s stated mission is to celebrate the masterpieces of non-European countries with the same reverence as as given to the Western works seen by millions at the Louvre and the Pompidou Center.

Viewed as something of an apology for the transgressions of France’s colonialist past, the Musee du Quai Branly intended it to be a testament to Chirac’s iconic legacy. It was a departure in that it showcased objects that would normally be displayed in a natural history museum and shone a brighter light on their aesthetic aspects. It broke new ground, but maybe in the wrong way. Critics of the project argued that the museum made “first art” — the term favored over “primitive art” — “exotic,” and via separation, further ghettoized the Other.

In a similar fashion, the recently renovated Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum, which happens to be the former residence of Prince Yasuhiko Asaka, appears to be signaling a break with the past. The message was clearly imparted in the decision to display Rei Naito’s virtually blank canvases for the inaugural show of the museum’s slick new contemporary art annex in November 2014.

As “Masks” is the highly anticipated follow-up to the Teien’s cleaning of the slate, it’s fitting that it would comprise works from one of the origins of what we now call “art.” The masks on display are from numerous tribes and clans of the world’s major continents and span centuries of tradition. Only a few of them bear a date or the personal mark of a creator; their beauty — both rough-hewn and polished — transcends both egos and time.

Janus mask, Ibo or Igala (Benue, Nigeria). | © MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY, PHOTOS BY SANDRINE EXPILLY
Janus mask, Ibo or Igala (Benue, Nigeria). | © MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY, PHOTOS BY SANDRINE EXPILLY

The aesthetics, materials and purposes of the masks vary dramatically, but most share the ability to provoke profound emotions. Knowledge of their provenance enhances appreciation, but an instinctual response is guaranteed.

Many of the masks echo animal forms — the antelope, the giraffe, the tiger — but it is the human features that make them so disturbing, familiar and haunting. Whether it’s an angry many-faced god, an animistic totem or an expressionless noh mask, in their eyes, we see the Other and ourselves.

As exhibits are categorized at the Musee du Quai Branly, this show is grouped by geographical location: Africa, Americas, Oceania and Asia. The section intros valiantly try wrangle them all into one corral: African masks manifest the art of mediation; the Americas all come under the art of parody; Asia is summarized as drama, and Oceania gets ephemeral. It’s a convenient but not particularly thought-provoking approach. Viewers need to work harder to connect the common themes that transcend location and culture.

The front room is given to the real stars of the show, the highly expressive and widely ranging masks of Africa. In the early 20th century, the “discovery” of heretofore unseen African designs lit the imaginations of European artists. In the case of Picasso, African masks helped build the bridge to the Cubist aesthetic that featured 3-D faces reduced to distorted geometric shapes.

Masks are, by default, transformative and thus reserved for special occasions. In many cultures, they were the tools of a shaman exorcising evil spirits, a tribal chief passing judgment or actors reenacting oral folktales. They are symbolic of our ability to mutate into nonhuman entities, but they also represent the transformation itself. Several on display were worn in initiation rites to signal entrance into adulthood. Others depict both gender’s roles in fertility. Or it can go the other way: The woven masks of the Abelam tribe in Papau New Guinea were placed on long yams, as the crowning of a man’s social status.

Kodiak mask, State of Alaska, U.S. | © MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY, PHOTOS BY SANDRINE EXPILLY
Kodiak mask, State of Alaska, U.S. | © MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY, PHOTOS BY SANDRINE EXPILLY

Masks often reference fear, and respect for those fears, but they are also a proactive means to manage larger forces. We can still experience awe in front of the menacing Janus mask from Benue, Nigeria and wonder at the surreality of the Tasilaq masks from Greenland. Viewing them in glass boxes, however, in the hushed environs of the elegant, high-ceiling mansion, we cannot ignore the fact they no longer serve roles in sacred rituals.

Perhaps to compensate for the lack of context, two viewing rooms in the Teien’s new annex are screening brief field reports and documentaries. Many are valuable anthropological documents of lost traditions and arts, but as edification, they almost neutralize the magical power of the masks themselves.

The Teien’s austere main building, which was recognized as an Important Cultural Property in 1993, is perhaps not a venue easily associated with spirituality and “first art.” But there is a thread: While Prince Asaka and his wife lived in France during the ’20s, they were taken with the en vogue art deco movement, which also showed the influence of exposure to African art, and brought that, along with French creative talent, as inspiration for the design of their home.

Asaka, who was an uncle to Emperor Hirohito, was widely believed to be the person who signed the “kill all captives” order that led to the Nanking Massacre in 1937. During the Occupation, Asaka was stripped of his Imperial status and lost ownership of the house. He was never brought before a war crimes tribunal and spent the remainder of his days playing golf in Atami.

Noh theater mask, Okina, Japan. | © MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY, PHOTOS BY SANDRINE EXPILLY
Noh theater mask, Okina, Japan. | © MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY, PHOTOS BY SANDRINE EXPILLY

One wonders if curator Yves Le Fur, the director of Heritage and Collections at the Musee du Quai Branly, was conscious of the previous owner’s legacy when he decided to display the exquisitely ghoulish kavat masks of Papau New Guinea in Asaka’s study. These masks, with oversized eyes and twisted wooden faces, were traditionally used in dances, one of which mourned the dead. In the eerie incongruity, the viewer can’t help but sense the loss of cultures and the venue’s shadowy history.

Perhaps to truly demonstrate the masks’ original roles and rid the location of bad spirits, the Teien directors should borrow a few of the masks and stage an exorcism, thereby killing two birds with one stone.

“Masks: Beauty of the Spirits: Masterpieces from the Musee du Quai Branly” at Tokyo Metropolitan Teien Art Museum runs till June 30; 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; ¥1,200. www.teien-art-museum.ne.jp

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