Sri Lankan masks are famous for their eccentric characters and vivid colours. Historically, masks were used in dances performed at Sri Lankan rituals and ceremonies, as well as for drama and performing arts. Today the masks have become popular as collectibles and souvenirs.
The masks can be grouped into four categories: mythological, demonic, animal-spirit and human. Mythological masks belong to pre-agricultural society, perhaps older than 2,000 years. The demonic and animal-spirit are also very old. All three types have connections to different religions, superstitious beliefs and other myths passed on from generation to generation in Asia. The human figures are more contemporary portrayals of the lifestyles of Sinhalese (Sri Lanka’s majority ethnic group) and other ethnic groups living in this tiny island (Tamils, Moors, Malays and Burghers).
In the window exhibition, there are four wooden masks imported from Sri Lanka. Their intricate designs with intriguing shapes and fascinating blends of bright and vivid colours showcase the craftsmanship of Sri Lankan designers.
Poorna Daundasekara is a Sri Lankan born artist now living in Nelson. She ran a workshop in early October where participants created the masks on display. They were inspired by the original Sri Lankan designs but added their unique kiwi flavour and imagination.
At the centre of the display is an oil painting by Poorna. This is a professional dancer performing a ‘Raksha’ (devil) dance using a mask called ‘Gurulu Raksha’. This is a mythological bird from ancient chronicles describing events dating back 7,000 years, found in both Sri Lankan and Indian literature.
This exhibition is part of the Nelson Arts Festival’s Masks Behind Glass (18 October to 1 November 2020).