Artists Masks Of Mexico
By Andrew Fox
One of the popular artistic manifestations of Mexico is in its masks. Every region has its own and from within the carved images, one can see two distinctly separate faces looking down on us. The European face reflects the history of Spanish Mexico. The other face is much older. It is an Indian face that somehow survived the centuries of acculturation and religious repression.
Much of the symbolism and magical richness of the masks has already been forgotten, but there remain a few lndians for whom they still retain their mystery. In ancient times the mask was a magical means of covering one’s own soul and assuming the identity of a god in ritual dances.
Transformation was a dominant theme in traditional Mesoamerican thought. It remains so to this day. Just below the surface here, overtly there or deeply buried as a kind of pan-Native ideological substratum, to which Indian Mexico belongs no less than do the native peoples of the Northwest Coast or Amazonia.
On a purely physical level, masks are made to hide the real faces of their wearers and to substitute artificial faces drawn from tradition and from the imaginations of mask-makers, However, the act of covering the face is far more profound than a simple disguise; the face itself has a far greater significance than one’s features. While Mexico, like other cultures, has long equated the human face with personality and the “persona” in the Jungian sense, Mexican Indian groups have taken this symbolic process one step further: they directly relate the face to the soul.
Historian Miguel Leon Portilla states that while the heart “symbolized the source of dynamism in human will,” the ancient Nahua people believed that beyond doubt, “face” referred to that which most intimately characterized the intrinsic nature of each individual. On a secular level, this concept of the face is equivalent to the European idea of the ego or the persona. However, such secular terms as ego and persona misrepresent the world concept of these Indian cultures, for theirs was a world where nothing was or could be separated from spiritual aspects, which survive among present-day Mexicans.
Thus, the masks of Mexico are a record of its peoples, cultures, religions and history. In fiestas and tianguis masks peculiar to each region can be seen and often bought. Miguel Covarrubias, in his book Mexican Folkways states that “the Mexican mask-makers reveal the same plastic vigor which is to be found in African and Oceanic sculpture.”