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A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden

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Modern african masks faces from within

Sandi Kahn Shelton, Register Staff 03/12/2007 found at


All her life Deborah McDuff of New Haven has heard people tell her that she’s so brave, that nothing bothers her, that she never seems to be affected by anything bad.

But a few years ago, two things happened that changed McDuff’s perception of herself. First, her beloved grandmother died, and soon after that, she became the full-time caretaker for her husband after he had double-bypass surgery.

"You have to be very cheerful when you’re caring for somebody during an illness," she says now. "You can’t ever let on how worried you are."

But right after her husband had fully recovered, she knew what she had to do. She took some art supplies, champagne, water and fruit and went off to the desert to be alone for a weekend, and there she discovered the self underneath that had been quietly holding together all those years.

By the time she came home, she had created seven masks. "I was just me. There was nobody else there, and it was later that I realized I was making masks because I had been wearing a mask for so long — the Nothing Bothers Me mask," she says.

The most surprising thing about that weekend is that she says she felt open to hearing other people’s voices the whole time she was creating the masks.

She created masks about difficult subjects: There was one about a woman who had been raped, another who had survived incest, one who had been abused and a mask about a woman being diagnosed with breast cancer. McDuff also made a powerful mask representing a dialogue between African and African-American women about their roles in the slave trade.

"I was changed when I came back from that weekend," she says. "One by one, the stories just unfolded for me. Now there’s a voice. There are many voices in me, and I don’t have to keep everything in. During the creation of the masks, it seemed as though I was entering the most intimate and uncomfortable station that dwells in a person’s life. I felt like the masks were communicating the truth without speaking a word."

But the words for the masks did come. While she works on creating a mask, she often hears the words that the character would speak, and the result has been a series of poems that go with the masks.

"Sometimes," she says, "the words come first, and sometimes the mask comes first. And sometimes I work on them simultaneously, back and forth."

She showed her masks once in an African marketplace, and a dealer there told her that they were different from typical African masks. "I’m not interested in doing a tribal mask of an animal," she says. "I really want to portray how people feel inside and who they are and are afraid to tell."

She has started making masks for people on commission. "I feel like it’s almost mystical work," she says. "If you want me to make your spirit, then I seem to just find the pieces that fit you. I just go home and without knowing that I’m thinking about it, I seem to go on a journey to find just what I need."

McDuff and her husband have only been in New Haven for 18 months. They transplanted here from California, where McDuff, a graduate of Antioch College, was a muralist and the founder of the Museum of Cultural Diversity, where her main job was helping artists exhibit their work. She has put on numerous art festivals and has taught art to people with paraplegia.

"The Antioch philosophy is to make social change," she says. "That is something I have always tried to do, with my museum and my murals. I love beautiful pieces, but I would hope my art can bring about social change. People see themselves in these masks. It’s interesting to see the masks that draw different individuals in. One woman gravitated to the one about rape, and then she told me that she had been raped a long time ago, and had never told anyone.

Another man went right to the mask about cancer, and knew immediately that was what the mask was about. He had had cancer himself. I feel that through these masks, people can see who they really are. I just want these masks to say to people: ‘You know the answer. Unmask yourself and go on and live whatever life this is.’"

McDuff’s masks are on display in the exhibition, "Catch a Spirit," through March in the Michael Adanti Student Center at Southern Connecticut State University, 501 Crescent St., Room 236, New Haven. Hours are from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays. For more information, call 392-5888.

To reach McDuff, call (562) 233-7686 or e-mail her at debrwil .

Contact Sandi Kahn Shelton at sandishelton .


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