Masks have a long history in Mesoamerica, and they have been used in theatrical productions, dances, and rituals in Mexico from ancient times through the present day. Of these five masks, two are reproductions of ancient masks, one is an actual ancient mask, and two are 20th-century masks likely worn in modern Mestizo (mixed Hispanic and indigenous cultures) festival dances.
This tie clip is decorated with a small but accurate silver reproduction of a Mixtec gold mask. The Mixtec, a Mesoamerican culture of the Postclassic period (900-1521 CE), were well-known for their highly skilled artistry in cast gold and silver metalwork; during the late Postclassic, the Mixtec were absorbed into the Aztec empire, but the Aztec continued to honor and hold their artists in high regard. The mask portrays the Aztec/Mixtec deity Xipe Totec, the god of springtime, renewal, and new vegetation, who is also the patron god of metalsmiths. Xipe Totec is also commonly referred to as “Our Lord the Flayed One,” because the springtime rituals conducted in his honor involved the sacrifice of a captured enemy and the subsequent flaying of the captive’s skin during the ritual month of Tlacaxipeualiztli; the flayed skin represented transformation, just as the earth replaces its brown, withered skin with a new, fresh skin in the spring. The actual skin of the flayed captive was worn by soldiers during the ritual month, while the gold mask likely worn by priests during the annual rituals.
This small wooden mask pendant is not actually a reproduction of a mask, but a replica of the head of an Olmec ceremonial jade axe that is now part of the British Museum collections; however, as the Olmec also made jade masks with similar motifs, this may explain the liberties taken by the 21st-century artist Mangianni in portraying this image as a mask. The Olmec were a Mesoamerican culture of the Preclassic/Formative period (1500 BCE-250 CE) who are well-known for their naturalistic Colossal Head portraits and their very stylized jade sculptures of supernatural beings. The face portrayed on the mask or head is typical of Olmec supernaturals, with its flaming eyebrow, wide and flared nose, and snarling mouth with its wide, stylized upper lip. While the snarling mouth and wide nose may refer to the Olmec “were-jaguar” supernatural, the flame eyebrow is more closely associated with a feathered serpent, a supernatural being that combines bird and serpent features; this being eventually evolved into the famous flying feathered serpent deity known as Quetzalcoatl/Kulkulcan.
This large mask strongly resembles masks made to portray St. James, a prominent character in traditional annual Mexican dances that celebrate the conquest of Mexico. The long, curling beard and the white and blue glass eyes are typical of depictions of Spaniard masks for these dances, and particularly of St. James. The mask also closely resembles a Borbones mask, however, which is a decorative type of mask that is carved in Guerrero, Mexico, exclusively for the tourist trade. This mask is particularly elaborate, however, and it is carved out on the back and pierced with eye holes, which make it functional for wearing in a dance; it thus may more likely have been made to function as an actual dance mask.
The Los Negritos dance mask is a traditional mask that portrays a black slave field worker who has been bitten by a snake; this is a dance that is performed predominantly in the Mexican states of Puebla, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Veracruz, and Michoacan, where Spaniards brought African slaves during the Colonial period. The Los Negritos masks and dance were likely originally intended to represent the danger that workers face while working in the fields; in some traditions, however, the snake symbol has developed into the representation of an evil instinct in women to deceive or harm men, and the dancers kill the snake as part of the performance. This association of women, snakes, and deception carries references to the Christian Garden of Eden story, and in some versions of the dance, the performers sing or recite verses of the songs to the Baby Jesus before performing the elaborate dances.
Mortuary masks were made by a number of Mesoamerican cultures to place over the faces of the deceased during funerary rituals and burials. This ceramic mortuary mask illustrates the features of figures made by the Colima culture of West Mexico, particularly during the early Classic period (250-300 CE): The face is oval; the ears are rectangular and are drilled with holes for attaching ornaments; the nose is straight and narrow; and the mouth is formed with a thin, flat indentation. All of these features are found on ceramic figurines, on pottery effigy bowls, and on ceramic brownware masks made by the Early Classic Colima peoples.
While mortuary masks are not typically found in Colima burials, this situation is much more likely the result of heavy looting in Colima regions rather than an absence of the practice of making mortuary masks in this culture. Unfortunately the Colima followed the West Mexican practice of burying their dead with numerous grave goods in well-marked shaft tombs, and thus they unfortunately have been the easy targets of both ancient and modern looters.
For more information, you may contact the researcher(s) noted in the title of this exhibit entry, or Dr. Billie Follensbee, the professor of the course, at BillieFollensbee@MissouriState.edu