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MassQ up: Outdoor fest to celebrate art and music from local communities of color

The event at Jamaica Plain’s Arnold Arboretum next Saturday will bring together artists across disciplines — including music, poetry, and dance — to create a free, immersive experience

Visual artist Daniel Callahan is part of the team behind MassQ Ball: Origin, a free event next weekend celebrating art and artists from Boston's communities of color.Nikolai Alexander

You don’t need to don a “MassQ” at MassQ Ball: Origin, an outdoor celebration of art and music from Boston’s communities of color happening next weekend.

But artist Daniel Callahan hopes you will.

What is a MassQ? It’s pronounced “mask,” but it’s not a mask as in the protective face coverings we’ve become accustomed to wearing over the past two years. Although if you want to wear one of those, that’s fine, too, and a MassQ can be designed around a mask.

A MassQ is a ritual application of face paint in a unique design that’s intended to bring out the wearer’s character and state of mind. Callahan coined the terms MassQ and MassQed, but he’s quick to note it has roots in traditions from around the globe. “You’re transformed into a walking work of art through paint,” he explained in a Zoom interview.


That’s only the beginning of what awaits guests who venture into the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in Jamaica Plain next Saturday afternoon. Co-produced by Callahan, the arboretum, and multidisciplinary artistic cohort Castle of our Skins (which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year), MassQ Ball is designed as a space for healing, learning, and connecting across communities, with the tall conifers of Hemlock Hill all around. Admission is free, and all are welcome.

“The idea of this ball is intimacy,” said Castle of our Skins artistic and executive director Ashleigh Gordon in a Zoom interview. “Being able to exchange and engage with friends and family, and being able to travel through the performance experience in smaller groups.”

This is how it happens. Upon arrival, guests will be invited to be MassQed. You can do it yourself, or you can be MassQed by one of several artists trained by Callahan. “They’ll talk with you for a bit and get more of a feel of who you are and where you are, and how that incorporates into line and color, and then they will paint that onto your face,” Callahan said.


Visual artists participating in a training session with Daniel Callahan to learn his MassQing technique. Over 30 artists will be on hand at MassQ Ball 2022: Origin to help attendees put on MassQs of their own.Sarah Duarte

Where a conventional mask conceals, a MassQ is supposed to reveal “who and what you are in the moment the MassQ is created. So I never do the same MassQ twice,” he added. One of the past MassQs on Callahan’s website reshaped its subject’s face with bold arcs of red on a field of black, another covered a face with a mosaic of pastel-colored lightning bolts, and yet another re-created a summer sky full of wispy white clouds.

Once guests have donned their MassQs, groups of around 30 people will be guided along a path of performances and visual artwork by Boston-based artists including spoken-word poets Dzidzor and Harlym 1two5, mariachi bandleader Veronica Robles, installation artist Lilly Manycolors, and a string quartet from Castle of our Skins.

Callahan and Castle of our Skins first threw a MassQ Ball in 2017; it was subtitled “Convergence” and took place at Roxbury’s Hibernian Hall. This year’s event, the second, expands on the 2017 edition “in every way possible,” Callahan said. It’s longer, featuring more artists, and guests can arrive at any time during the event.

Gordon hopes the outdoor setting will help people feel more comfortable with regard to COVID-19 risk as well as encourage interactions by “being able to see each other in new ways; being able to do so again in a space that is a free and open space for all,” she said. “We’re trying to highlight for people of color to know that [the arboretum] is a space where, especially if you haven’t before, you can enjoy many walks and imaginations here.”


Violist Ashleigh Gordon is artistic and executive director of Castle of Our Skins, a Boston-based concert and educational series that centers Black art through music. Robert Torres

Castle of our Skins production coordinator Jacqui Dumornay said she appreciated being able to see her childhood stamping ground from a new perspective while planning the event. “A lot of my skinned knees were from riding my bike off trail,” said Dumornay, who grew up five minutes from the park and worked with the arboretum’s horticultural staff to create an accessible and immersive experience without disturbing the park’s conservation initiatives.

“When we get stuck in the hustle and grind of being in an urban center, being in the arboretum really gives folks a chance to hit pause on that,” said Dumornay. “We’re not discouraging phones, but we’ve made a strong effort to organize the exhibition in a way that feels natural, so folks don’t have to use their phones to navigate.”

The ultimate goal of the ball, said Callahan, is to transcend boundaries and bring people together.

“I think Boston has always been somewhat of a segregated city,” he said. “Boston has a lot of diversity, but often people stay in their enclaves. So a cultural event like this that brings people together to celebrate each other — not only in what makes us the same as human beings, but what makes us unique . . . was potentially a beautiful thing in Boston.”



July 9, 2-7 p.m. Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, Jamaica Plain.

A.Z. Madonna can be reached at Follow her @knitandlisten.