Making Faces

Originally published in hellobali magazine, May 2011

As one of Bali’s oldest traditions, mask-carving has developed into an art form rather than a mere skill. Ida Bagus Anom, a mask-carver and storyteller, sculpts us a picture of his art through his characters.

To prepare for the role of Travis Bickle in Scorsese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, De Niro became a cabbie for three months in New York City prior to shooting the film, while the more ill-fated Heath Ledger immersed himself completely in his Academy Award-winning role as The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ to the extent that he suffered mental instability. Both actors are revered for their commitment to bringing a character to life and their hard work pays off in the end. In comparison to these two legendary method actors, Ida Bagus Anom performs a similar ritual to get himself ready for the stage, except that in his case, he turns to the powers that be to “shape-shift” for his role.

Anom has been carving masks and also storytelling through his mask performances since 1965. While method actors usually study the psychology, circumstances, emotional make-up, and other variables that surround the build of a character, Anom has a more spiritual approach to perfecting his character performances. He relies on divine energies of the mask he dons to take hold of his physical body and transform him into who – or what – ever character the mask represents.

In his workshop in Ubud, I am witness to these amazing transformations in character that the jovial whittler is accustomed to making. Before my eyes, Anom makes swift switches between masks – rows of them adorn the walls of his workshop and gallery – and just as swiftly, he does a shape-shifting act that is worthy of a multiple personality disorder diagnosis, or an Academy Award.

He puts on a mask depicting an old wise man and his voice and movements change, he then puts on another mask with the face of a young, cherubic boy, and immediately, Anom morphs into character; his stance changes, the curve of his back is delicate and playful, and his arms are poised effeminately. The pitch of his voice ascends and becomes coy and perky. He takes the mask off and instantly, Anom returns to his body. I am in awe.

how did you do that?
It wasn’t easy, I have 46 years of practice, and I have yet to perfect the characters, I’m still learning.

i have a hard time believing that.
[laughs] I am better at it now. The skill of mask-carving itself is easy to develop, but becoming the mask was difficult to learn. It took me five or six years to be able to fully transform into character while playing the role of a mask. To memorise lines and choreography is very simple, and before I learned how to “become the mask”, I was a mere actor. I must let the mask take over my body and let it speak to my soul for a proper transformation. Even to this day, I am not always able to “be the mask” – one day I would portray King Bedahulu so perfectly and the next, it is just not in me anymore. I don’t know what causes this and I’m still trying to figure it out rationally, but I guess the simplest answer would be that I just wasn’t in tune with the mask’s energy. The audience doesn’t suspect a thing, they see the same performance with the same dialogue, but I can feel that I had no taksu [divine inspiration] during the performance.

so it’s as if you are under a spell during a performance?
Yes, my body is just a vessel for the mask’s spirit. Sometimes after a mask performance, someone says to me, “You told a very funny joke on stage, before. Can you tell me that joke again, I’ve forgotten it,” and I have no idea what they are talking about because I was not there, only my physical self was.

that is amazing. it is like method acting, but spiritual.
Something like that. Which reminds me, I have a regular customer – he’s a good friend of mine – who comes and buys my masks by the hundreds. He is an acting teacher and director of theatre in New York. His name’s Phillip. He teaches his students using my masks. He tells them to put the mask on and to play the part. He is very specific when he orders a mask design from me – who the character is, what they do, how they feel, how they speak, and so on. Now, if you want to talk spiritual, Phillip has taken it to the next level. He recently told me that he has used my masks to cure his mother, who had arthritis and was in a wheelchair until he put a mask on her and performed a healing ritual and she is apparently back on her feet and walking. Now, that is amazing.

how did you learn this craft?
My father and grandfather were both carvers and mask performers also. It is in my blood [sits in front of me cross-legged and starts to carve a chunk of wood].

what are you working on now?
Oh, this [lifts up half-carved mask and turns it to show me], this is a woman. She comes from the heavens and she is a divine being.

she’s beautiful. what’s her name?
I don’t know yet, she hasn’t told me.