Objects and Strategies: The Demon of Blindness
After posting the last entry, I decided not to include a series of images as originally planned, but instead to pick out one image of a museum object to discuss in greater depth. I learnt through my time as a museum volunteer, and as a postgraduate researcher, that a useful strategy for building a compelling exhibition or historical argument is to choose a single object, or cluster of objects, and work upwards and outwards into the wider world of historical meanings that each embodies. Merely from a practical perspective, it seems the same logic could apply usefully to this blog.
It did not take long to select an object to represent. The mask of the ‘Demon of Blindness’, shown in the accompanying photograph, is presently on public display on the third floor gallery of the Redpath Museum. When I first visited in 2011, I was instantly struck by both its visual presence and its conceptual suggestiveness. It is slightly smaller than an adult human face, has a blue mottled complexion, two long rows of square white teeth, and curved red lips that part eerily into a ghoulish grin. Above a wide, triangular nose sit two eyes, the right closed as if in blindness, the left wide open, gaping out at the visitors and staff of the museum. As well as being visually striking, the mask of the Demon of Blindness implies a ritual for curing ailments of the eye, and therefore a specific and distinctive cosmology of sickness, therapy and health. Sure enough, it hangs at the back of the gallery in a case dedicated to Ayurvedic medical practice between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, and presides on a collection of related medicinal implements, including a set of ivory pencils and various decorated boxes for pills and salves. A label explains that traditional beliefs in southern Sri Lanka hold that demons cause ailments, and that Kana Sanni Yakka is the demon of blindness. Masks are used during ceremonies that attempt to exorcise the demons and pacify them with gifts.
There is, however, something else, a further quality, which appeals to me about this mask, and which I think is true of masks in general. It is their disconcerting power to animate identities in the very act of concealing them; the fact that they create and obscure things, or people, simultaneously, and that as one being hides another is unleashed. By raising the point that an act of wearing is also an act of becoming, masks provoke questions that drive to the very heart of identity and personhood – identities of Sri Lankan demons in the nineteenth century, for instance, and their subsequent representation in twenty-first century museums.
These are some of the reasons for choosing the blind mask as a first image, and also as an original point for further investigation. The curator’s choice to display this object has guided my own choice to consider it in greater depth, thereby demonstrating the power of archivists alluded to in the manifesto for this blog. In the post ‘Slow Beginnings’, I remarked on my intention to start reading up on the history of anthropology and museums (to be reported in a later posting). The Demon of Blindness leads me towards further readings on ritual, therapy, and exorcism in southern Sri Lanka, and then towards more detailed knowledge of the mask itself, its existence as a medicinal artefact and a museum object, and its significance for Casey Wood.
‘The Demon of Blindness’, World Cultures Collection, Redpath Museum, McGill University