Behind Nancy Rourke’s Painting: Mask of Benevolence


Nancy Rourke, a Deaf woman, painted the masterpiece, Mask of Benevolence. I saw there are many interpretations in it before that deciding to purchase it with a firm inclination (which means I am the OWNER of this ORIGINAL painting) to call it Mainstreaming Bigotry and Belittlement” What then is art? Is it more than just a clear-cut reflection of a vivid impression of life? I saw myself in this painting, Mask of Benevolence, because I was bred and buttered into a mainstreaming system within Deaf Education throughout my childhood.

On the surface, this painting seems to remind me of my life, to tell a history of separation from my own selfhood—my Deafhood–which has been scattered to the pieces. This was my childhood wherein ASL was lacking and my daily self-concepts—my ideas of the reality of life—were not the same as I had learned. I would still need to preface my considerable integrity that, first, I am 100% Deaf and that, secondly,  I must apply it to myself.  While growing up, I knew of no Deaf history and very subtle—little enough—about my own state of being Deaf for my background information and knowledge. Both strangeness and stigma had become a norm for me, and I just had to deal with “disability” and to develop accommodations for my life, acquiring necessary educational experiences which were always challenging to me.

However, I had learned always to make the best of my situation, yet always enthusiastic to learn and excel. Nancy Rourke’s painting is about conflict. Conflict within ourselves. It shows faces embodied with all of these other personalities; they are faces that seem to love themselves despite being callous to their own experiences. It is a strange paradox that screams of depth and the power in pure, unadulterated self-reflection. It is a raw statement about the internal individuals within us all. Nancy Rourke’s painting is a complete paradox of both self-love and self-hate.

The Deaf person who signs “STOP” in RED circle which is the most focal key of the painting is portrayed with passion and a complete feeling of apathy. Yet, that person’s face has scratches all over that forces the viewers to do two things: recognize the depths in the face and examine the colors and layering they suggest. These marks almost seem like a purposeful scarification that the person has applied to herself. Each scratch has a layer of contrasting paint underneath the first layer.

This seems to lead into the themes the outer face and personalities offer. To get from the original self to a new sense of self is not an easy task. Often, this task must be performed alone. It involves introspection to the depths of the soul and shatters the current connection between the heart and mind in order to forget a stronger link and a greater sense of self. This link is integral to inner peace and without it, life can feel like a veritable, inescapable sandstorm. I recognized about the personal nature of the journey the painting is all about. We all have a journey to take, and it is important to know our limitations, our abilities to surpass them, and the realization that we have a lot more tools at our disposal than we may realize (both internally and externally).

Now, at age 35, I had discovered Deafhood which has since become my prima facie—my face value, my face truth. In the book, Deaf Identities In The Making written by Jan-Kare Breivik quoting Milan Klara who says that has stood up to my reading eyes: “It is difficult to say who I am in a clear and single statement, because I have no deaf identification and no hearing identification. But I have a little story that says something about who I am—my identity.” Deafhood, coined by Paddy Ladd, has taught me how to see the clash and tension of cultural and social forces. Also, there are many contemporary indictments of the social conditions of educational and economical “poverties” faced by Deaf people as well as the repercussions that affect and break down the social roles of the Deaf world. In addition, fast forward, the people I meet on this journey can greatly affect my path, either for good or for bad.

True to its description, Mask of Benevolence, fundamentally changed and the Deaf person in the painting finds a purpose truer than any she held before. All the other people than the Deaf person, each outer face is sharply blocked into thick boxes who have opposing personalities as it is, with their different perspectives (profile shot and straight on) and expressions of darkness and playfulness. Nancy Rourke was very deliberate in her choice of material. The painting she painted on has an unusual effect that is able to startle the viewer upon closer examination. It is very reflective surface. By painting on this surface, Rourke literally forces people to see their reflection in the surface.

Is Rourke suggesting that these contrasting persons are hidden inside each of us? The cumulative effect of these circumstances produced anger, sadness, and grief, a feeling of isolation, worthlessness, and difficulty motivating myself in most areas of my life. I realized that I was self-medicating for the spiral of negative events that were plaguing me. I thank the word, Audism which appeared into my life and made me feel strong after that. Mask of Benevolence made a statement that Mainstreaming is not the right answer for Deaf children. Although my school teachers had made their classroom “a safe haven” even if one was to fail, I was treated as a fool of myself without judgment.

Where was my right as a student to receive a fair philosophy of reliance upon self-direction and freedom to lead myself to get a fair education? Being DEAF has no privileges in any mainstreaming system. I would like to share the quote, “The struggle of life is between memory and forgetting” by Milan Kundera—which clearly defines my life. That is what Nancy Rourke showed the true sentiments of this painting is all about.


Copyright © 2013 Jason Tozier

This text may be freely copied in its entirely only, including this copyright message.


3 thoughts on “Behind Nancy Rourke’s Painting: Mask of Benevolence

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