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Masks and Sacred Powers

By Riess Potterveld


This Gu Mask is painted wood from Mali or Côte d’Ivoire, 19th-20th century.

This Gu Mask is painted wood from Mali or Côte d’Ivoire, 19th-20th century.

In August, 2014, the Graduate Theological Union was given 189 works of sacred art from all over the world by Lanier Graham and family and the Institute for Aesthetic Development. GTU will use these works for classroom teaching, research, and in exhibitions open to the public in order to maximize access to and utilization of these treasures collected by one family over three generations.

Masks are commonly produced in tribal and indigenous religions often representing sacred powers through humanoid or animal images sculpted out of native materials such as wood or vegetation.  Within religious ceremonies, the masks might be worn to represent the presence, power, and influence of that which is considered to be sacred or God-like. The mask may also conceal the identity of the wearer of the mask so that there is a deeper sense of the presence of that which is beyond the mundane and ordinary and which therefore harbors transcendent and magical powers.

The masks are often supreme examples of the artistic creativity of a people and are considered fine art by many because of the inclusion of elaborate attention to form and shape, coloration, and texture.  African masks were particularly influential on Western artists in the 20th century because of their raw and evocative power which suggested a passion and animating spirit from pristine and unspoiled cultures that had been eviscerated or forgotten in the artistic refinements of European art.

As a way of sharing these treasures, we will begin introducing one each month with some background on its place of origin and religious meaning in so far as those are known or can be determined.  Eventually, the GTU intends to photograph all of the works and make them available on its website to the general public.  While there are many marvelous collections of art in museums and private collections, there are few collections in the US that focus solely on religiously related art.  Because these objects represent most of the world’s great traditions, they fit perfectly with the interreligious mission of the Graduate Theological Union and will provide a continuing graphic representation of the value of bringing the religions of the world together for mutual engagement, research, and common effort to establish a peaceful and sustainable future.