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At the MassQ Ball, Bostonians wear a different sort of mask

Karen Young played a Taiko during a performance at The MassQ Ball 2022 in the Arnold ArboretumCarlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Green wasn’t the only color Saturday in the Arnold Arboretum, where wooded areas were crowded with faces covered in red streaks, blue circles, pink lines, and orange squares.

People didn’t choose the decorative designs displayed on their skin. Instead, artists asked them questions about themselves and painted pictures on them that reflected the responses.

The activity — called “MassQing,” pronounced “masking” — took place across the Arboretum, where local artists hosted a “MassQ Ball” as a celebration of Boston’s communities of color.

The MassQ Ball also featured a dozen diverse types of ceremonies and performances, including Brazilian Capoeira, a form of martial arts; hip-hop; taiko drumming, which is Japanese; spoken word poetry; mariachi music; and cultural dances.

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“The event really is a celebration of arts and culture, specifically of the arts and culture of people of color here in Boston,” said artist Daniel Callahan, who co-produced the event with Castle of our Skins, an arts organization that serves Black Bostonians.

Performances were conducted throughout the afternoon in clearings between the conifers and artists in a dozen tents invited attendees to have their faces “MassQed” with paint.

Callahan co-created the concept of MassQing — which is based on the body decoration practices of Indigenous Peoples from around the world — as an artistic way to combine the concepts of “identity, community, and change.”

“We tend to think of masks as things that cover our face, hide our identity, or protect us,” Callahan explained. “What I try to do is flip that notion and use the paint to reveal things about us, to bring what’s inside out.”

Saturday marked the second MassQ Ball in Boston — the first was in Roxbury in 2017. Callahan said MassQing has taken on more meaning since the pandemic, when masks became a hindrance to human connection. Though MassQings may sound the same as “masking,” the process is about bringing people together rather than keeping them apart, he said.

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For Saturday’s MassQ Ball, he trained almost 40 local artists to make MassQs. The artists asked their “human canvases” a few questions before they began to paint: Who are you? What are you struggling with right now? What brings you joy?

Some MassQs were just a few dots; others featured a full face of paint. A handful of the designs had nods to nature, such as flowers or butterflies.

“It’s so interpretive and there’s no rules. I’m just going off my imagination,” said Anukriti Kaushik, a Boston artist creating MassQs. “It’s very intimate experience to get to know a stranger like that.”

Micah Rose — who was performing as part of a taiko trio — said there was a special significance to having their face painted after the pandemic, which felt “tender,” since “we’ve been so limited in our experience of intimacy the last two years.”

People were also invited to participate in other activities at the MassQ Ball, like writing creation stories and reflecting on prompts such as: “Imagine we were united. What could we create?” As they walked across a footbridge, they were asked to drop a pine cone over the edge and think of something they have lost.

Sue Morton, of Roslindale, said the experience was a “wonderful” way of connecting to others and to nature.

“We all need to just become human again, and just love and enjoy nature,” said Morton, who had blue and white shapes sprinkled across her nose and her cheeks. “It just brings us back to all the goodness that there is in the world.”

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Ashleigh Gordon, the co-founder and director of Castle of our Skins, said she hoped people benefited from the chance to meditate on themes such as harmony, equity, and unity.

“If I could look at someone as a walking work of art, if I could see their humanity, if I could see that we’re more alike than dissimilar, that we have commonality — I would like to hope that could make the world a little bit better,” she said.


Camille Caldera was a Globe intern in 2022.Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.