Mask Magic

An Arizona State Museum exhibit shows the adaptation of Mexican masking rituals

Every year at Easter time, the Yaqui community of Tucson stages an elaborate paschal drama.

The ritual plays, performed in an outdoor courtyard and chapel over several days in Holy Week, re-enact the story of Christ's passion, death and resurrection. The designated players take part in the dramas to fulfill sacred obligations, and they wear masks representing all the familiar characters of the story--Jesus, devils, Pilate and so on. But some don masks that strike a surprisingly modern note. A Ninja Turtle, for instance, might be among the masked throngs, or a Spider-Man.

The Yaquis are originally from northwest Mexico, and they're not unusual among Mexican Indians in mixing the sacred and the profane--Biblical characters and comic book heroes--in their ceremonies. The same thing happens in Central America. I once saw a Mayan Indian wear a shark mask, in honor of the movie Jaws, in a Christmas Eve procession in Guatemala.

A small but vivid new show at the Arizona State Museum, Masks of Mexico: Santos, Diablos y Mas (Saints, Devils and More), demonstrates that cultural adaptation has been part of Mexican masking rituals almost from the start. Native festivals began thousands of years ago, but after the Spanish Conquest of 1521, indigenous traditions blended with the European. Modern markets have brought another change: Ritual masks nowadays are giving way to masks created solely for the tourist trade.

Opening just in time for Halloween--an American masking festival based on ancient Celtic traditions--Masks bristles with brilliantly colored specimens, from red-faced, black-horned devil masks and sharp-toothed, striped jaguars to sexy Malinches with long eyelashes and a red-masked Spider-Man complete with webbing. A serene Church-worthy Jesus and Virgin of Guadalupe co-exist with skulls and bats.

The materials are just as varied as the mixed cultural symbols. Painted wood predominates, but depending on the time period and on what was on hand, mask makers have availed themselves of stone, ceramic and leather, and even plastic and polyester.

The combinations are inventive. A 1975 hunter mask from Guerrero is made, appropriately, of animal products, brown leather for the face, pale fur for the beard. A Puebla skull, circa 1980, carved from wood, has a full head of cloth hair. A Zoque Parachico mask from Chiapas, used in a dance that recounts the story of rich woman giving her wealth to the poor, has a painted wood face. But its amazing aureole of hair is made of straw. Soaring up and out like a 3-D saint's halo, it's topped by blue ribbons.

Billed as the museum's first bilingual exhibition, Masks traces the history of the craft from a tiny pre-Columbian ceramic "Raptor Head" from Veracruz, dated 1200 to 1400 A.D., all the way up to the shiny polyester lucha libre masks worn by free-form boxers circa 2005. A scholarly text by curator Diane Dittemore, nimbly translated into Spanish by Michael Breschia, is a primer on their meanings.

Long before Cortés showed up, Aztecs and other native groups staged religious ceremonies in which they magically transformed themselves by wearing the face of birds or bats or alligators. The masks helped them negotiate the dangerous boundaries between the natural and the spiritual worlds, and call upon their spiritual guides.

The old-looking pre-Columbian pieces representing this early period are labeled "replicas." Fakery has apparently been rampant in the mask trade--particularly since masks became collectibles--and scholars have been re-assessing the provenance of many of the masks in the museum's own collection. A handsome Olmec mask in stone of a human face duplicates the broad features of these early people, but it's most likely a recent creation. Still, the unabashed modern-day imitations hew closely to the old styles. Take the "turquoise inlay" mask from Guerrero. To the untrained eye, it looks like the bejeweled heads found in the Mexico City anthropology museum. But the mosaic of squares in green and white on its carved wooden face are plastic.

When the Spanish conquistadors showed up, evangelizing friars followed quickly in their wake. Hoping to banish the pre-Columbian "idols" along with the old religion they represented, they introduced new processions and plays based on Christian tales. The masked Santiago dance lionized St. James, the patron saint of both the Conquest of New Spain and of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain. One painted-wood mask in the show is the horse of the victorious James; it's a two-legged creation in wood and hair meant to be worn atop the head.

Other imported plays included the Posada, the story of Mary and Joseph's search for shelter, and the Pastorela, the tale of the shepherds' journey toward the star of Bethlehem. (Both plays enjoy modern revivals in Tucson.) Indians accustomed to their own masked festivals adapted readily to these newfangled ceremonies, but they infused them with more of their cultural trappings and religious consciousness than the friars perhaps cared to admit.

Sometimes the Indians changed the script. A variation on the Moors and Christians dance had the native Tastoanes winning the battle of Mexico, and not so coincidentally slaying Santiago. And even when the plays stuck to the Spanish narrative, indigenous dancers wore masked images of ancient origin, of jaguars and tigers and skulls. The Yaquis' Easter Week ceremonies include performances by the traditional Deer Dancer. And the masking still allowed transitions to the old spirit world, and more earthbound changes in a wearer's identity.

The exhibition rounds up masks from a variety of popular indigenous dances and festivals that are still practiced regionally in Mexico, or at least were until recently. A gleaming mask of a black man's face, adorned with a rainbow cascade of ribbons, is used in the Negrito dances in Michoacán. These festivals commemorate the black slaves who once labored as overseers for landowners along the Gulf and Pacific coasts. The leather hunter mask once graced a Tigre dance, re-enacting a hunter's struggle to destroy a marauding jaguar.

A special section highlights masks from Arizona's neighbors in northern Mexico, including the black-and-white Pahkola face masks of the Yaqui, or Yoeme, and the sleek wooden carvings of the Tarahumara.

The multimedia show also exhibits photographs, including some sweet schoolgirl angels marching in a Christmas posada procession in Tucson around 1930. A costume section has garments set up on mannequins. One is a comical European costume, complete with back suit, top hat and umbrella, and a mustachioed face mask. (The masking rituals were serious religious affairs, but they're also full of naughty humor.)

A full-scale make-believe tienda mimics the shops that sell masks to tourists today, devils being among the most popular models. A taller, or workshop, displays the tools of a contemporary masker's trade. It includes at least one of his possible influences--a television.

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