March 27, 2020–February 2021
Michael C. and Mannetta Braunstein Gallery
Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art
March 27, 2020 5–9PM
The symbol of the mask has long been an object of identity and mis-identity in Mexican culture. Evidence of masks and their uses can be traced back thousands of years to the ancestors of the region’s indigenous peoples.
In pre-Hispanic Mexico, masks were brought to life through the use of dance. Early societies used ceremonial dances to praise their gods, hoping to bring fertility and good weather for crops. Worshippers in pre-Hispanic Mexico venerated the four cardinal directions, sometimes known as the four winds. Each direction had a color that corresponded to it and was commonly used in masks to represent specific purposes and meanings. Among the Aztecs, black was used for North, blue for South, red for East, white for West, and yellow for the multidirectional central point.
The traditional ceremonies underwent a change when Europeans arrived as Christianity was imposed on Mesoamerica. The dances were modified to reflect Christian beliefs and Christian festivities, while the masks became less zoomorphic and adopted more recognizably human characteristics. Design elements that survived from pre-Hispanic times were not always understood by the newcomers. Thus, a mask that suggested the threatening features of the Aztec underworld deity Mictlantecuhtli was acceptable to Christian settlers because they believed they were seeing a representation of the biblical Devil. This meant that many indigenous people continued to perform their dances with the same symbolism and religious meaning as their ancestors. Through this form of rebellion, they maintained some of the traditions the Europeans sought to extinguish.
The collection of masks for the exhibition CENTRO (Center), show how the merging of cultures between pre-Hispanic peoples and Europeans produced a fusion of visual themes that would eventually carry over into Mexican culture as a whole. While the introduction of a new religion overtly altered the purpose of the masks, many of them still incorporate traditional zoomorphic forms such as lizards, or references to the colors of the four cardinal directions. Our curator chose to paint the gallery walls yellow to reflect the Aztec notion of a space as a central point that can be occupied by multiple directions at once. CENTRO was curated by Javier Sanchez, an artist based in Las Vegas
Image: Village Mask. Mexico, 1920–1950. Gift of Michael C and Mannetta Braunstein Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art Collection 1997.03 (Javier Sanchez)