WRITTEN BY SEBASTIAN PORECCA
NOVEMBER 26, 2019
Masks have always been a source of strange fascination for me. I was always drawn to the strange, grotesque way they both mimicked the face and hopelessly obscured it. As a child, that was exactly why I loved Halloween, and I vividly remember, every year, walking through the Spirit of Halloween or Party City that happened to pop up in the corner of some suburban shopping center. I was drawn in by the masks, totally captivated by the outlandish, disgusting disguises you could pull over your face. Masks seemed like a portal to some absurd dream world; it was like you could step into a different body and inhabit a new being whenever you wanted.
I now see masks differently, but in some ways still the same. To add some context, over the past few years, I have done a lot of research on insurgent and paramilitary movements, for both academics and personal interest. Visually, what jumps out at me most about these groups is their masks. A grainy black and white photo depicts an Irish Republican Army gunman, surrounded by barbed wire, holding up a machine gun. His face is cloaked in an ill-fitting cotton mask, concealing every facial feature but his eyes. In a photo from the Liberian Civil War, a young man in a blue jacket peers at the camera, clutching a rifle with extra magazines duct-taped to its side; sitting on his head are a cheap Halloween store skull mask and a curly red wig.
In another photograph, several members of the Turkish Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front/Party (DHKP/C) stand in an urban alleyway, against graffiti crusted shutters, while pointing weapons into the air. They are all wearing bright red hoods, revealing only a sliver of their eyes. I also remember seeing images of Palestinian rioters during the 2018 riots at the Gaza border. There were photos of the masks, worn by everyone from small children to old men. The vast majority of these masks were homemade, made from rags, plastic bottles, deconstructed respirators, and even vegetable scraps. Their obscured faces peered out from under the masks of trash, designed to ward off tear gas at all cost. All of these images stood out especially to me because of the masks.
The masks represent something very important in how militants represent themselves visually. At first glance, face coverings are purely practical, helping militants avoid recognition by the state or other opponents to their cause as they carry out often illegal activities. But I also see it as something more. Masks completely depersonalize these individuals. They are stripped of their identity and personhood, and become a being without a past and without a future. Their individual personhood disintegrates and they become a personified image of their collective cause, be it revolution, war, violence, or fear. And yes, their individuality disintegrates, but from this disintegration the individual grows into something bigger. Their identity grows into a movement and collective larger than themselves, and they represent not only themselves, but the entire collective movement they fight on behalf of. They cease to be an individual and instead are absorbed into an abstract faceless collective.
This can be seen in the fact that this seemingly practical matter has become a deliberate aesthetic choice for some groups. DHKP/C militants, for example, are immediately recognizable by their trademark red mask. In the ongoing anti-authoritarian protests in Hong Kong, gas masks, balaclavas, and other facial coverings have become a symbol for the protests, especially in light of the recent mask ban put in place by police. This is true even in the generic sense. The standard balaclava ski mask, used by revolutionaries across the globe from anarchists in Greece to anti-government insurgents in Columbia, has become a universal stand-alone symbol for civil disobedience, insurgency, and illegal vigilantes. Masks, in a way, engulf the individual behind it and become a revolutionary symbol. I can see this in the countless revolutionary murals in Northern Ireland and Basque region of Spain, both of which are flash points of regional autonomy movements that erupted in extremely violent insurgent warfare. These murals often depict not a single figurehead but generic militants, identified by the heavy, obscuring masks on their faces and the weapons in their hands. These revolutionary movements, and so many others around the world, are personified by the masks of the rank and file militants that fight for their cause, whatever it may be.
To that end, I find a lot of poignancy in a few quotes I read years ago about the Mexican revolutionary known by his pseudonym Subcomandante Marcos, or Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano as of 2014. Marcos, known for his black balaclava and accompanying pipe, is the leading figure of the revolutionary leftist Zapatista movement, which controls semi-autonomous territory in southern Mexico. Author Naomi Klein writes about Marcos in her book ¡Ya Basta! Ten Years of the Zapatista Uprising, describing him as “a leader who doesn't show his face, who says his mask is really a mirror.” This quote really stuck with me because Klein beautifully articulated the reflective nature of the mask. What is truly monumental about the leadership of Marcos is that this masked figure transcends the person behind the mask, becoming a universal in which everyone can see themselves.
Masks are an inescapable visual aesthetic of warfare. Gas masks, balaclavas, dark, face concealing helmets, are all part of the images we conjure up as the most chilling, hellish portraits of war. They are inescapable, especially as warfare is waged more and more often by non-state actors and guerrilla fighters. It is something that is always present in war and conflict, and it mystifies me. It mystifies me not because I don’t understand the obvious implications of practicality, security, protection, whatever, but it mystifies me through the secondary, strange, symbolic importance masks have taken on. War is grotesque, and it seems natural to me that this aesthetic manifestation of war is also grotesque. There is something metaphysical to me about the world these masks portray. It reminds me of the Halloweens of my childhood, but grotesquely distorted. Looking into the inhuman eyes of a gas mask or a balaclava, staring back at me through grainy, black and white photography, they seem to take on and reflect all the hatred, fear, and violence of conflict. Like a mirror.