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The Mask Never Lies

Can a symbol as powerful as the mask help to explain the history of our times?

Based on the book by Servando Rocha Algunas cosas oscuras y peligrosas. El libro de la máscara y los enmascarados (Certain dark and dangerous things: The book of masks and the masked), this exhibition offers an underground history of the last century and a half as told from behind a demystified mask. A mask capable of penetrating into the political landscape as an instrument at the service of perverse wielding of power or as a tool for constructing identities within political activism and social struggle. From the Ku Klux Klan to Pussy Riot, we thus observe a heterogeneous repertoire of masked faces behind which not only identity is hidden, but indeed the very origins of certain era-defining phenomena, be it fake news, paranoid conspiracy theories or the workings of biopolitical control.

Curator: Servando Rocha

Sections of the exhibition

Introduction – The Ages of the Mask

From its origins, the mask has always been a magical object that connects us with the instinctive side of our identity: the mask activates the other side that is hidden within us. The Masks Never Lies details the move from ritual object to desecrated object, appropriated by a universe of supremacists, criminal gangs, neoactivists, social movements, delinquents and pop icons. Nevertheless, in this leap from the sacred to the prophane, at least some of the magical and transformative power of the old masks lives on.

Wild Carnival

The explosion of violence as a “social equaliser”: from the little-known origins of the Ku Klux Klan, its evolution and propaganda methods, the Bald Knobbers vigilante movement and the Anti-Rent War, to the Watchmen comic and its subsequent adaptations. The story of the Ku Klux Klan is also, in a certain sense, the story of how a clothing design evolved and was fine-tuned. Starting out as a clumsy, homemade garment which sought to establish a doctrine of fear, it only became consolidated when standardised as an iconic uniform. This section also traces the origins in the Nordic traditions of the so-called Wild Hunt.

The King of The Ghosts

Fantômas was the wicked and much adored fictional character who would inspire Surrealist painters and poets, amongst others. As a counterpoint, we examine the beginnings of scientific criminology with the Bertillon System, the panic caused in French society by the Apache and Bonnot gangs, and the anarchist attacks and the spectacular robberies of Durruti.

The Great Fraud

The writer Leo Taxil published a large number of books in which he falsified documents and witness accounts to construct a secret history of the Freemasons, associating them with the occult and satanism. He would go on to admit that it had all been a big lie. His giant scam would rock not only secret societies but also the Catholic Church and the Papacy, in a huge controversy at the end of the 19th century. As a result of Taxil’s lie, popular culture, and also the press of the time, represented the Freemasons as masked figures, thus perpetuating a red herring that became superimposed over reality, eventually erasing it.

Modern Shamans

The fascination of the early 20th century intelligentsia with primitivism as a symbol of freedom, opposition and transformation during the interwar period, gave the mask a prominent role. The Voltaire Cabaret, Bauhaus experimental theatre, performative dance, the attraction of African culture, the theory of the mask developed by the poet W. B. Yeats, under the influence of Japanese Noh theatre, and the fascination of some of the Surrealists with the tribes of Northern Alaska are all examples of how distant cultures were examined in the search for a new vital and artistic language. This section focuses on the leading role of women – Mary Wigman, Emmy Hennings, Kati Horna, etc. – in this invocation of (black) magic.

Mexican Wrestling

Mexican culture’s relationship with the mask is ancestral and rooted in the shamanic rituals of the Aztec civilization. Mexican wrestling is a theatrical sport but also the inspiration for a specific subgenre of magazines and even a lifestyle that condemns its most popular figures to permanently live behind a mask. Over time, certain social and political movements have adopted the figure of the masked fighter to achieve a kind of political populism: Superbarrio, Super Gay, Super Disidencias, Fray Tormenta, Super Ecologista. Where does the Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos’ balaclava fit into this tradition?

Guy Fawkes Salutes Malevich

The elusive Anonymous movement and the Pussy Riot phenomenon embody two recent examples of the use of masks in a context of radical political activism. Nevertheless, in both cases, we see strange shifts in meaning – both as regards the origin of their iconographies and the ideological evolution of the icons after their absorption into popular culture. The revolutionary Guy Fawkes, the work of Malevich, the short story V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, merchandising by the major film studios, far right groups and the appropriation of the Pussy Riot aesthetic by a filmmaker like Harmony Korine are just some of the landmarks in this story of appropriations and expropriations.


The mask as a shield against disease and death. Whether it be the Black Death, cholera, Spanish Flu or now Coronavirus, throughout history, major pandemics have led us to resort to means of self-protection which cover part of the face and homogenise us. Nobody could have foreseen that throughout 2020 we would all be wearing masks to protect ourselves against an invisible enemy. But do we all? Well, actually, no. To wear or not to wear a mask is the issue that separates the average citizen, who identifies as part of the vulnerable masses, from the denier, who believes in conspiracy theories about biopolitical control. This context lends itself to key dystopian themes but has had several precedents both in collective history and in the rich imaginative repertoire of popular culture.

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