The Role of the Black Mask in Greek Theater

Greek (Sicily). Mask of a black man, circa 350 B.C., 22.5 cm, terra-cotta.  BRITISH MUSEUM
Greek (Sicily). Mask of a black man, circa 350 B.C., 22.5 cm, terra-cotta.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
An intriguing artifact from the classical period of ancient Greece attests to the engagement of the black presence with the origins of Western drama. The stage served as a crucial locus for the expression of Greek culture and mores. It also affords unique insight into interrelated issues of class, race and empowerment.

There was a clear place on the Greek stage for black people in the presentation of both tragic and comic themes. How that role was played out speaks to the larger experience of blacks in ancient life and the ancient world.

The object seen here is a life-size replica of an actor’s mask from the Greek stage. Made of reddish terra-cotta pressed into a mold, the head was then brushed with a thin layer of slip, or liquid clay, to simulate a dark complexion. Though its precise origin is unknown, the mask likely originates from the island of Sicily.

Two small holes at the sides of the head allowed the mask to be suspended, probably on the wall of a home or temple. There is evidence that masks, both originals and copies, were dedicated in shrines of Dionysus as votive offerings. The sacred nature of Greek drama was manifested in this practice, as the art of the theater was dedicated to this popular god of wine and revelry.

The mask represents the type of a black slave as he would have appeared in comedies of the fourth century B.C. It should be pointed out that in antiquity, bondage was not racially determined but depended more on the vicissitudes of war and other kinds of social upheaval than the targeting of a single group for enslavement. As the art historian Frank Snowden has pointed out, the ancient world was not encumbered by the vicious form of racial prejudice that emerged with the practice of chattel slavery during the early modern period. Not surprisingly, then, most slave mask replicas have non-African features. The depiction of a black bondsman here simply attests to the wide degree of characterization brought to this popular role by ancient dramatists.

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Source: The Root |  

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