Hanging in my current home, blessed with many walls, is my modest collection of wooden masks. Amongst the collection, hanging by itself in the living room where the light is sometimes just right, is my personal favourite, the first mask in the collection.
It’s quite plain, really, especially compared with most of the others and is unpainted, carved in slightly blemished wood, of a Balinese face at rest, with eyes bulging and slightly smiling full lips (like a Buddha some have said). I purchased it in New York where I had been trying to live as an actor/waiter/alexander technique receptionist for over two years in the early 80’s. There was a shop in the village where I’d never dared go inside because I knew my greed for folk art would overcome my need for food. But I stopped every time I went by and gazed longingly in the window. The store featured Indonesian art. I finally went in.
It was immediately overwhelming. Especially frightening beauty was rampant, dangling from the ceiling and screaming from the walls. Lots of fantastic, large fanged, bug-eyed beings, fabulous masks and puppets and carvings and dragons and pink lotuses and snarling demons all painted up. But I was looking for something in particular. I had been dreaming up a clown character who opposes nuclear development, a man of peace named ‘Nonuke of the North’. I was seeking inspiration.
As I was looking at all the stuff, drooling on my runners, pricing the costly items, starting to worry that I wouldn’t be able to afford anything, when I came to a section of unpainted carvings, including several masks. I held them all and tried them on. A few were out of my price range, not hard to beat. After a long time I finally narrowed it down to simple one with a sweet face. I chose it because I thought the face looked universal and neutral, but I’m a naïve white man.
I took my purchase to the cashier and paid about $25, which was all I had to spare. The Indonesian owner of the shop wrapped it up in tissue and put it in a small cardboard box, which I thought was so thoughtful for an inexpensive item. He smiled and asked, “Do you know what this one is called?”
“No.” I said.
He smiled and said, “A Peaceful Man.”
When I eventually moved into an old house in the West End of Vancouver, that mask was the first thing on the wall, followed by a few Mexican masks that I’d purchased on tour with that nameless theatre company that lured me to New York in the first place. That was the beginning of my collection, which now contains over 40 masks from 14 countries.
I had moved to Vancouver to take a job with Expo ’86 as a singing/dancing beaver in the opening act in the Canadian pavilion in what was later voted “the worst show at Expo”. After that very challenging gig I thought that what I jokingly referred to as ‘my performing career ’had hit rock bottom. I decided to shift gears (again) and dedicated the rest of my life to being a photographer, becoming a dance/theatre publicist/photographer/writer for the next 20 years I was in Vancouver.
But back in between rehearsals for ‘The Goose and Beaver show’ I also managed to create ‘Nonuke of the North’ who appeared for the first time in the 4th annual Vancouver peace march in April, 1985 with 80,000 other protestors. Nonuke wore bright yellow plastic 2-piece rain gear trimmed with green fake fur. There was a large fluorescent green peace sign on his back. I hesitated copying the mask because i didn’t have the time, but the peaceful, gentle spirit of the mask was a definite part of the Nonuke’s character. I painted Nonuke’s face white with a green peace sign. The character was much more popular than I had expected and spent most of the day posing for photos. I loved the fact that Nonuke was making people smile or laugh while protesting. He appeared on all local TV and newspaper coverage of the event, including a great shot in the Vancouver Sun..
The next year the march was scheduled on a day when I had to work as the Beaver and I couldn’t re-schedule because of my uncooperative Goose. So I asked my youngest sister if she wanted to fill in for me at the 1986 march. My idea that year was to include Santa Claus so I rented a costume for her b.f. to dress-up in. I thought Santa and Nonnuke would be a hot couple and I was right. My sister said they posed for photos “pretty much constantly”. There were over 100,000 peace marchers in 1986, a record that still stands.
1986 was the first year the march ended up at B.C. Place and those in costume or with good signs were asked to parade in front of the other assembled participants sitting in the stands waiting for the speeches. My sister said that when they walked in a roar went up in the crowd as people cheered like crazy. She looked around to see who they were cheering for and realized it was them, Santa and Nonuke holding hands.
As they walked by each new section of the stands they got a standing ovation. So many people wanted photos that they never had a chance to sit down. She also remembers, as I did, having to smile with closed lips so as not to break the bottom curved line of the peace sign painted on Nonuke’s face. Lots of pictures appeared in all the papers and TV coverage that year also. When I returned the Santa costume, the rental company had loved seeing him on TV and didn’t charge me.
The next year I decided that Nonuke could have a partner and made a green rain gear costume with brown and yellow checked fur. I remembered the mask and recklessly decided to make papier mache copies for my friend Jay and I to wear so that we might appear more neutral and non-gender, non-race specific. I thought we looked fabulous. Perhaps we looked too gay?
As the 1987 march assembled on the far side of the Burrard Bridge, we were soon accosted by an angry Native Feminist who demanded to see under my mask. When I lifted it and she saw my white face she screamed, “I thought so!” and unleashed a barrage of abuse based on cultural appropriation. She wouldn’t listen to the fact that the mask wasn’t copied from her culture, she reasoned that it was stolen no matter where it was from. She stormed off and soon returned with a piece of paper saying, “This is what your sign should say!” She jammed the paper into my hand. It read, “Racist for a good cause!” I argued back that this wasn’t native misappropriation because the mask and the character were meant to be seen as universal but she wasn’t listening. Maybe she was right? Was Nonuke’s costume a rip-off of Inuit culture?
Jay and I walked in the 1987 march but my spirit wasn’t in it. Nonuke and his partner didn’t make it into any newspapers. Nonuke, as a solo without the mask, made it out to a couple of other smaller demos after that but that was his last peace march.
In an end of the millennium wrap-up on Dec. 16, 1999, the Vancouver Sun re-published the photo from the 1985 march along with a subsequent letter to the editor from some anti-peace march ranter from Ladysmith. Anyone know an H.B. Dickens?
– Daniel Collins, 2018