Exhibitions

Fowler in Focus: Masks of Sri Lanka

March 1, 2009 to August 30, 2009

Brightly painted wooden masks transform Sri Lankan dancers into specific characters that appear in curing rituals or popular entertainment. Ranging from comical to fierce, these unusual masks have long played an important role in performance genres that were created through the mixing of local indigenous religious traditions with strains of Buddhism and Hinduism originally imported from the Indian mainland in the first millennium BCE. The Fowler Museum collections include the most important assemblage of nineteenth and early twentieth century Sri Lankan masks in North America.

Fowler in Focus: Masks of Sri Lanka presents twenty-five of these rare masks, as well as newly produced masks representing Singhaya (lion) and Mahasona (Great Graveyard Spirit) in full costume.

Exhibition In Depth

Brightly painted wooden masks transform Sri Lankan dancers into specific characters who appear in curing rituals (tovil) and in a popular form of drama (kolam). Several regional traditions of masked performance exist within Sri Lanka, but the masks displayed in this exhibition all come from Sinhala communities in the country’s coastal Southern Province. Although the Buddhist traditions of the Sinhala are the predominant cultural strain in modern Sri Lanka, the country’s mask traditions are believed to have developed originally through the mixing of local indigenous religious traditions with Hindu and Buddhist elements imported from the Indian mainland in the first millennium BCE.

In Sri Lanka today, the viability of masked performance depends upon the ability of teachers and students to form lineages of practices including woodcarving, dance, and drumming. Intermittent civil war between government and Tamil rebel forces since 1983 and the ensuing political instability have greatly curtailed masked performance. The southern coastal areas that produced the masks in this exhibition were additionally devastated by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Despite these obstacles, masked performance continues to survive in reduced circumstances in some rural communities where people prefer traditional healing and entertainment in their daily lives.

The Fowler Museum collections include the most important assemblage of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Sri Lankan masks in North America. Fowler in Focus: Masks of Sri Lanka presents twenty-five rare masks from this period as well as two recent masks representing Singha (a lion figure) and Mahasona (a bear-like graveyard spirit) in full costum.

Exhibition Credits

Developed in collaboration with David Blundell, associate professor, National Chengchi University, Taiwan and consultants in Matara, Southern Province, Sri Lanka: Conrad Ranawake, Institute for the Development of Community Strengths, and A. V. S. Ranasinghe, Sri Lanka Mask and Dance Ensemble. The accompanying programs are made possible through the Sri Lanka Foundation and the Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund.