American Masquerade

Mask2 Mask

Masks by Joyce Kozloff. Left: Voyages #41: Lesbos, 2005, acrylic/cast paper, 8.25 x 6.25 x 3.5” Right: Voyages #21: Pohnpei, 2004, acrylic, collage/cast paper, 8.25 x 6.25 x 3.5”. Masks by Joyce Kozloff will be featuring in “Acis and Galatea,” presented by the Catskill Mountain Foundation as part of American Masquerade.

The Mainly Greene Partnership Creates an Exciting Multi-Media Celebration of the History of the Masquerade Motif

A Canadian law quietly enacted in 2013 specifically bans people from wearing any sort of mask or face covering during an “unlawful assembly.” Under current Canadian law, a maximum ten-year sentence is being threatened against anyone convicted of concealment of one’s face. While Canadian law had already enacted a ban on covering one’s face during a criminal act, this newer law is said to be aimed directly at activists who wear masks at protests. In Oklahoma, lawmakers are planning to introduce a similar bill. Masks weren’t originally meant to conceal. From their beginning in ancient times, they were used for protection or ornamentation. It is believed that masks were used first to transfer supernatural power or call up “the gods.” Masks were used in ancient Roman festivals to signal that the necessity for polite behavior was not necessary and people were free for a short period of time to engage in “merry-making” beyond their rank or status. At the Carnivale of Venice, which dates back to 1268 CE, all were equal behind their masks. Even the Jewish Purim festivities make use of carnivalesque masks. The Iroquois Confederacy of North America used masks to heal. Himalayan masks acted as go-betweens with supernatural forces. Native Alaskan Yup’ik masks vary in size from three-inch finger masks to twenty pound masks that need several people to carry them. Whatever their use, masks have played an important part history and in helping us to understand what it means to be human by masquerading as something other than ourselves.


This spring, Mainly Greene, a partnership of four Greene County, New York based non-profits, will explore the masquerade motif in a joint exhibit, “American Masquerade.” The core of the multimedia exhibit will be the Anti-Rent War of New York State, which took place from 1839 to 1845. The so-called “war” was actually a tenants’ revolt in upstate New York during the early 19th century, beginning in 1839 with the death of wealthy landlord, Stephen Van Rensselaer III.

Long after feudalism had ended in Europe, the old-world manor system was revived in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains, granting millions of acres to transplanted European aristocrats to manage a land settlement scheme designed to transform the wilderness into agricultural communities. In 1839, the grandsons of the soldiers who fought for American independence found themselves paying rent to rich land owners, on farmland their families had cleared and worked for generations. The tenant farmers’ flag put it simply

Down With The Rent

Some Anti-Renters contested the idea that the Livingstons, Van Rensselaers and other Patroons had legal title to the land. Some wanted to apply the rent paid toward ownership. Some just wanted the opportunity to buy the land where their families had lived since arriving in the new world. There were Anti-Rent flags, rallies, drinking songs, newspapers and political candidates. They organized into regional groups, with younger men joining a Calico Indian “tribe,” pledging a secret oath to never reveal the members’ identities.


Beginning on Saturday, June 6through Sunday, October 11 at the Zadock Pratt Museum in Prattsville, NY, the Mainly Greene Arts Partnership will begin a six month examination of American Masquerade, the historical and cultural uses of the mask in America and its roots in European culture. The museum exhibit 12 • will tell the story of the Catskill Mountain farmers who disguised themselves in their wives’ calico dresses and sheepskin masks to intimidate the rent collectors on whose land the farmers were tenants. Underneath this story is a deeper, as yet untold story of the Native American claim on the land and their view of the Anti-Rent Wars. Noted author, teacher and Algonquin tribe member Evan Pritchard will join exhibit curator Fawn Potash in chronicling this as-yet hidden but essential part of the American story. Learn even more about the exhibits here.

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