It was sitting on a table in the window of a dusty shop among stacks of old paintings. Someone had collected a lot of art in there and like many of the shops on King’s Road, it was
a private collection, parts of which were sometimes for sale. These shops were open when the spirit moved the owners. This one was here today sitting outside enjoying the sun. A tall woman in an orange dress, she had a matching sunhat and long hair. She was chatting with someone. When she finished her conversation and looked over at me, I asked if I might see the little black mask in the window. It was no bigger than my hand and a snake was coming out of the mouth.
The owner of the shop said she would try to reach it for me, as if she were a pearl diver, taking a deep breath to go into the sea and look for treasure. This was not the first shop on this street that was so packed with stuff that no one could walk in. It was a charmingly, or alarmingly, laid-back way to do business. She stepped inside the door and began moving paintings aside to get to the table. I watched from outside the window as she balanced one painting against another. It felt like I was watching a mechanical claw inside a fun house machine, reaching for a small prize. All the tension was there. Will I get the prize? Or not? It was hard to see if she would be able to do it, there was so much stuff leaning against various other things. There was another small mask, red, on the table too. She picked it up and looked at me. Would I be interested in this one? If so, her work would be done. I shook my head. No. I wanted the black one with the snake coming from the mouth. I’d never seen one like it before and it intrigued me.
When she finally was able to reach the little black mask, she grabbed it and carried it by the string on the back, gingerly making her way back between paintings again until she reached the front door of the shop and came out into the sun, placing it in my waiting hands. I could feel a thick layer of dust on it.
‘It’s old, I think. I got it a long time ago.’ That was the extent of the backstory.
She told me the price and I paid it. I loved the layers of paint. The whole thing was carved in wood and then painted. The snake was also made from a curved piece of wood fitted into the mask. We agreed it could have come from Mexico. Best guess.
As I took it home on the bus I was thinking about the symbolism of snakes in art, in dreams, in stories. It seemed like an intriguing symbol for telling lies, or stories, or fiction-something that comes out in words from a writer’s mouth. Imagining a ceremonial use for the mask, I thought it might have been painted black as a way of having the face disappear in darkness allowing the snake to be prominent, a character in a play. Or it might have been a morality tale–one shouldn’t speak lies. But a friend reminded me that snakes also represent healing and wisdom. A snake wrapped around wood or a tree is the symbol of medical practice. So, the mask is ambiguous. Perhaps like the writer. Plato called art lies because art represents reality but is not itself reality. But art and literature can show us the deepest truths.
I like this mask perhaps because it also makes me think about the personality or identity of the writer who is hidden, wearing a mask, performing a role. What comes from the writer’s mouth–the words, are the thing. Colourful. Lies or truth–escape or healing–entertainment or art. Words should be the focus of our attention, not the writer, who is covered by a black mask.