Taking the mask off conflict 

Think tank on conflict resolution this month

By Russ Cooper

Stephen Snow was making conversation last spring at a social and transcultural psychiatry conference addressing peace and conflict when he talked about an article he had written in 1983 about the powerful role traditional masks have in healing rituals.

Associate Professor and Chair of Creative Arts Therapies Stephen Snow stands with the Sanni Yakka mask he had commissioned during his recent trip to Sri Lanka. Magnifying glass

Associate Professor and Chair of Creative Arts Therapies Stephen Snow stands with the Sanni Yakka mask he had commissioned during his recent trip to Sri Lanka.

Snow, Associate Professor and Chair of Creative Arts Therapies, was describing a specific Sinhalese mask to Shavindra Dias, a lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Peradeniya in Sri Lanka.

"Dias said, 'Why don't you come to Sri Lanka? We can have someone make a mask for you.' It was serendipity," says Snow.

And so he went. In December, Snow ventured to Sri Lanka for "a two-week road trip through the Southern part of the country." It was there Snow commissioned a local artist to craft his Maha Kola Sanni Yakka mask, Sinhalese for 'sickness demon.

"The mask is part of rituals to aid in healing. The traditional Sanni Yakka mask always has 18 small faces, each representing a specific disease. In performances, each sickness demon is made into a large, wearable mask and is interpreted into dance with the goal of ridding someone of that particular sickness," he says.

His trip to Sri Lanka also fuelled his interest in cultural conflict resolution, a field he's been involved in for some time now. In 2002, he was part of the team looking at the aftermath of the student confrontation situation here at Concordia, and in 2006, along with colleagues from McGill and the University of the West Indies, he closely examined the pervasive reasonable accommodation discussions.

Currently, Snow is coordinating an international think tank on conflict resolution, cultural intelligence and the creative arts therapies to be hosted at Concordia from Feb. 23 to 27. The purpose will be to establish concepts and principles to best address the utilization of creative arts therapies in intercultural communication and conflict resolution.

Sponsored by the office of the Vice-President, Research and Graduate Studies and the Centre for the Arts in Human Development at Concordia, the conference will bring together creative arts therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists from South Africa, Sri Lanka (including Dias), Afghanistan, California, West Indies and England to explore ways to effectively apply creative arts therapies to situations of conflict.

The ideas brought forth by the think tank will provide supplemental information for a major grant funding and development application for the Initiative for the Advanced Study of Culture Conflict and the application of the Arts Therapies (IASCCAT), a small initiative that has already received funding from Vice-President Research and Graduate Studies Louise Dandurand's Seed Funding Program.

The Amherst, Massachusetts-native has been at Concordia for 17 years, after living in New York City for 20 years where he completed his PhD at NYU in performance.

The Creative Arts Therapies Department, situated within Fine Arts, has a firm footing in Concordia's history and our future Art Therapy has been here for 25 years, Drama Therapy for 12 years and, this September, the Music Therapy option will offer 12 master's students the chance to earn a graduate certificate. The department hopes to expand Music Therapy into a full-fledged master's degree in the near future.

"The focus isn't just on the art, it's really on the person and improving their well-being and the quality of life," says Snow on the overarching ethos behind creative arts therapies.

Next fall, Snow will be going back to Sri Lanka during his sabbatical to advance the development of the IASCCAT.

"We're creating a theatre production based on the technique of ethnodrama. We're going to tour it around Sri Lanka to create forums for peaceful discussion and reviewing what potential social action can be taken to heal that very deep cultural conflict that's there," he says.

He's exploring the possibility of adding a 19th face to a new mask, one for cultural conflict, when he returns this fall. "Would that affect people? Maybe it is the wrong thing, because this is a Sinhalese tradition and we're going to be performing for Tamil people as well. But I thought it was an interesting idea."

"A mask can be a lightning rod for certain kind of energy that's often a key part of the healing process."


Concordia University