It is 22 February 2011 and my hometown of Christchurch has been unearthed by a series of devastating earthquakes. I have an idea for helping Cantabrian youngsters make sense of strange events: a ‘debrief and development’ mask-making project in schools.
Here is a hint at what the quake kids saw with their terror-blinded eyes, not only a tour de force but also a tour de face…
Twenty schools took part in this project. The children were given a blank mask template, and invited to use it as a way to show their own experience, in part to detoxify from the shock and in part to focus on the rebuild. They were asked to treat their mask like a physical landscape or an emotional landscape, effectively a story-scape. These children had never made quake masks before, and had nothing to go by except a model created at Christchurch South Intermediate School following an earlier September earthquake.
The maker of the mask pictured above says “The paper mache hand over the top of my mask shows that we were all afraid and sweating with anxiety that dark morning” (no nose to be seen).
Big, bulbous noses on masks signify curiosity and natural inquisitiveness. Dramatic hooked birdy nose-pieces signal the ability to go beyond our time and experience, challenging the ideas we believe in. Noses never do as they are told!!
And yet most kids chose not to overly emphasise the nose feature, leaving it as an undifferentiated painted bump on their story-scape. Several children, though, turned noses into torches (one resembling a miner’s torch) to light the way during power outages.
Something was limiting their natural curiosity. These kids were in lockdown in their home and school communities, their horns pulled in and their natural nosiness restrained.
Masks with jutting brow and bulging, rotating eyeballs normally suggest new ways of looking and new perspectives. The mask template doesn’t have ready-opened eyes, which gives the children unlimited scope for expressing vision. By far the most common eye detail was tears, signified by painting, drawing or sequins.
Most children chose not to cut open the eyes of their blank mask bases. Perhaps this was a safety strategy to limit their gaze: a monstrous earthquake is terrifying to look at directly. Wading through tears, this ‘gumboot eyes’ mask provides a frame for eyes-that-have-seen-too-much.
Masks with oversized batwing ears suggest the freedom to question the soundest of truths. Some children attached abstract ‘ears’ such as water bottles, words, numbers and shapes to the mask flange. One mask shows ears seemingly stuffed with cotton wool balls, aptly portraying the ‘white noise’ one suffers in a sudden bad news scenario, Yet most children did not waste energy building ears on their masks.
After thousands of ongoing rock ‘n roll shakes it seems most people in the earthquake zone just ‘screened it out’. Perhaps this explains the relative absence of ears in the quake mask collection. This might be a time when it’s necessary to desensitise hearing.
Masks with grossed-out cheekbones suggest cheekiness, the freedom to be disrespectful and to critique or satirise the so-called ‘normal’. This mask story shows the cheek area ripped away entirely. Its maker says: “My mask has broken buildings and rubble on it to show how the buildings around Christchurch were destroyed during the earthquake and the aftershocks. The Richter scale shows how big the earthquake was…”
The quake children did not indulge in classroom cheekiness. They were wholeheartedly engaged, as this was serious business. At the same time they used humour to lighten the mood, joking about being “children from broken homes”.
Masks with prominent foreheads suggest pressing up against authority and the rigidity of the status quo. An earthquake however, is not the time to indulge in head-banging. Things are disruptive enough already. Being thrust into survival mode requires the community to pull together. Yet many masks did feature graphic rim extensions such as flames and broken pipes on the forehead part of the template.
This maker writes: “The massive rim on my mask represents the size of the shakes that are shown on the Quake Map. The yellow eyes and mouth are the lights from torches, and the black cracks in the ground radiate out from the epicentre. The black mask means darkness…” Clear to see conditions are enough to make your hair stand on end.
Masks with gargantuan gobs suggest the freedom to challenge authority by speaking out. The classic example is the theatre pairing of Tragedy (down-turned mouth) and Comedy (up-turned mouth).
The mouth is the ‘epicentre’ of mask work done in classrooms during a crisis / catastrophe / disaster / demolition-derby. The Cantabrian quake children had to tell their story—their way. They put enormous energy into mouth details when picturing their quake mask stories. Some mask mouths are “bricked up” while others are open wide screaming. One shows a ticking time bomb.
In the secret world of symbols teeth represent ‘humanity’ and this greenish toothy mask really cuts the mustard for feeling tone.
Its maker writes: “My mask shows the earth splitting as the tremors cut through and how everyone felt afraid and called out. It also shows the real fear and the stress of the earthquake. The colours show the malty emotions felt in the quake…”
“Malty emotions”—how succinct! This is what naked humanity looks like: teeth-baring without artifice, without costume, without veiling. Q. How do you depict “gritty”? A. The teeth.
Quake masks do not resemble drama masks, identity masks or culture masks. These are ‘danger masks’ made outside of the time-bound book-smarts socially-acceptable white-collar be-yourself curriculum. Subversive yet sensitive, they share each child’s ‘I’ll never forget’ moment. This blue mask goes for the full facial: nose, eyes, cheeks, forehead/hair details, rim radials and grimacing mouth, all meticulously filled in, with sploshes of bile-green conveying how stomach-churning it was.
So what do the masks of The Shakes Peer Group tell us overall?
Just because it’s unthinkable doesn’t mean it’s unpicturable.
It is possible for crisis survivors to re-imagine the violence of strange events in graceful ways.
Annette Rose: Annette is a registered nurse, doctor’s wife, mother & grandmother, social anthropologist, creative entrepreneur & storier. When she grows up she would really like to be an angel investor. She is writing a book about her work with the quake masks. Her address for correspondence is firstname.lastname@example.org