Monday, October 13, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 5: The Marti Mansion and its Mask Museum

Wooden devil mask from the state of Michoacan. Carole and I have always been fascinated by the indigenous masks of Mexico, as well as the dances associated with them. In fact, we have assembled our own small mask collection from Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca and elsewhere. The use of masks for religious and spiritual purposes extends back at least to the Olmecs, thousands of years into pre-hispanic times. When the Spanish arrived, the indigenous people incorporated Catholicism into their ancient beliefs. Masks that seem to be about Catholic themes will often carry pre-hispanic meanings.  In addition, some of the masks were used in dances that covertly ridiculed the white oppressors. San Luis Potosí's Museo Nacional de las Máscaras is located in an opulent former 19th Century mansion. The mansion occupies the southwest corner of the Plaza del Carmen. To find the Mask Museum on a Google map,  click here:

The Marti Mansion

The beautiful Marti Mansion would be worth a visit, even without the Mask Museum. The large, two-story structure was built by a wealthy miner and hacienda owner named Ramon Marti. In 1894, at the height of the opulent era called the Porfirato, Marti purchased and demolished five adjoining homes. Using the engineer Enrique Campos, Marti erected this Neo-classic palace. Campos finished the work in 1897.

The central courtyard is occupied by a complex set of interlocking staircases. The effect is graceful and airy, rather than ponderous and imposing. The rooms surrounding the courtyard on both levels are now occupied by the display salons and museum offices.

The salons show the typical decorative elements of Porfirato architecture. The Porfirato was named for Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's dictator for the 35 years between 1876 and 1911. During this era, Mexico's wealth increased dramatically as foreign investment brought railroads, telegraph networks, new ports, and many new industries. However, the overwhelming majority of this new wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small number of Mexicans surrounding Diaz. Beautiful homes like this were only possible because the mines, industries and haciendas owned by men like Marti paid their workers just enough to survive and sometimes not even that. Labor unrest in the mines and factories was kept in check by the iron hand of Diaz' secret police and military. Farm workers who tried to escape the debt slavery system of the haciendas were caught and returned by Diaz' fearsome rural police force called the Rurales.

Ornate plaster cherubs and floral motifs adorn the ceiling. Ramon Marti didn't get to enjoy his pleasure palace for long. He died in 1898, only a year after construction was finished. His heirs apparently viewed it as a "white elephant" and sold the property in 1903 to a Diaz supporter, General Bernardo Reyes. He, in turn, sold the house to the federal government in 1907. For the next 75 years, the Marti Mansion served as the Palacio Federal, housing a variety of agencies such as the Federal Public Ministry, the League of Agrarian Communities, the Mining Council, and the National Telegraph of Mexico.

This ceiling shows a winged cherub frolicking among colorful flowers. After decades of wear-and-tear, in 1982 architect Fernando Valdez Lozno remodeled the building. That same year, the current museum was created. The 2,500 piece collection of Victor José Moya Rubio and his wife Mildred Dingleberry Himm became the core display. Then, in 1998, the building had to be rehabilitated because of cracks that threatened to split the structure in two. The Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historia (INAH) has designated the Marti Mansion as a historic monument.

Masks and mask-making in Mexico

Masks have been and still are used in dances and rituals in virtually every corner of Mexico. A few examples typical of their region can be found on the map of Mexico seen above. At the time of the Conquest there were between 100 and 200 distinct tribal groups within the borders of what is now Mexico. Even today, there are still at least 60 distinct indigenous languages spoken here. The themes of the masks and the materials from which they are made vary from region to region according to local resources and traditions.

Skull mask of Tezcatlipoca, one of the most powerful gods of the Aztec pantheon. The surface of the mask is inlaid with bone and turquoise. The turquoise was brought down from what is now New Mexico to the Aztec Empire. For more information on Tezcatlipoca, see my posting on the Aztec Cosmos. However, the Aztecs were relative latecomers to the world of mask-making. 2,500 years before them, the Olmecs were carving extraordinarily fine stone masks of various sizes. Some of these have been recovered from sites along the Gulf Coast of Veracruz and Tabasco. Others have been found in Colima on Mexico's West Coast and in Costa Rica to the south.

Masks are made from a variety of materials, including finely woven natural fibres. The kinds of materials used include sisal agave, dehydrated cactus leaves, dried corn husks, gourds, and coconut fruit rind. The use of these fibres goes back to the very dawn of Mesoamerican civilization. Some modern mask makers still use such materials.

This Huichol mask uses both human hair and wood. The painted designs include a deer, which is one of the most sacred symbols of this culture. The Huichol have tenaciously maintained their traditions, rituals, and mode of dress. As a mask material, wood is highly preferred by many indigenous craftspeople, including the Huichol. It is easy to acquire, durable, malleable, and possesses healing and magical qualities. To obtain the wood, trees are cut ceremonially, at precise times and under particular conditions relating to climate and astronomy. Among the favored woods are pine, copal, mesquite, cedar, and avocado.

Another natural fibre mask of a more primitive design. This mask was unidentified, but may have come from northern deserts of Mexico once inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherers called Chichimecs. These nomads tended to favour such light materials because, lacking fixed abodes or draft animals, they had to carry all their possessions from place to place.

Settled groups could afford to use more delicate materials like clay. Masks such as these are favored in places like Oaxaca, where the local black clay is used to produce especially fine work. The Zapotecs of Oaxaca were contemporaries of both the Olmecs and the Aztecs, giving them one of the longest continuous histories in Mexico. Other places specializing in clay masks include Metepec in Mexico State, and Tonalá and Tlaquepaque in Jalisco State. As with the wooden Huichol masks, the ones above are adorned with human hair. Notice the eye slits just above the painted eyeballs.

Güe Gües and Devil Dancers

A Güe Güe sporting a huge blonde "Afro"holds a characteristic whip. Güe Gües appear at many indigenous fiestas and dances. They wear terrifying masks and crack their whips as they move around the fringes of the mass of dancers. I have seen them in action at dance fiestas as widely separated as Tuxpan in southern Jalisco and the northern Puebla State mountain town of Zacatlán.

Another Güe Güe wears a horned mask and clutches a small doll. Dolls are often carried by these characters and may symbolize fertility. Güe Gües are associated with both devils and the aged. They represent the on-going struggle between good and evil, a post-Conquest concept which has been incorporated by indigenous peoples into their fiesta rituals.

This Güe Güe looks like a "flasher" from a horror movie. His mask is both terrifying and hilarious. The whip he carries in his right hand will be used to exact "penance" from dance participants. Some authorities think the whips carried by Güe Gües are related to the experience of African slaves imported into Vera Cruz and Guerrero States. Over time, the slaves inter-married with indigenous people and the result was a amalgam of African and the New World cultural traditions.

Diablo de la Pastorela mixes indigenous with biblical imagery.  Pastorelas are plays that recreate biblical passages related to the Nativity. In that story shepherds were alerted to the birth of Jesus by an angel who directs them to look for him. These plays were introduced by evangelizing friars as a way of teaching Christianity to the newly conquered-and-converted indigenous populations. In the Pastorela plays, devil figures wearing masks like this try to distract and mislead the shepherds from their quest. This mask comes from the Purépecha crafts workers of Michoacan. They are an indigenous people who are famously skilled at woodworking.

Three wood and polychrome masks from Chilacapa, Guerrero. These masks were used in the Danza de los Siete Vicios (Dance of the Seven Vices). Although the masks above seem rather nightmarish, the diablos or devils of Mexican dances are typically irreverent or satirical characters. Their goal is to subvert morality and they will often provoke laughter in the spectators through their vulgar comments. Notice that the tongue of the mask on the left is the head of a serpent.

The sly smirk on this fellow's face indicates he is up to no good. This wooden mask from Guerrero includes a human-hair beard. Underdlying the good vs evil dichotomy imposed by the Church are indigenous meanings that are much more complex. The figures represent beings of the spirit world that carry a wide range human attributes, as well as attributes of the ancient gods.

Masks and the Animal World

Both in life and in the indigenous spiritual world, the jaguar is extremely powerful. It is the largest and most powerful non-human land predator in the Western Hemisphere. In the world, only the Indian tiger and the African lion are larger. This animal has been the symbol of warriors, nobility, and the underworld from the earliest times. The Olmecs left many stone monuments showing half-human, half-jaguar figures. Some of these were carved so that they appear to be emerging from underworld caves. The physical manifestation of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca was a jaguar. The great Toltec and Aztec military empires and the Maya city-state of Chichen Itza all fielded armies led by jaguar warrior-societies. Since it hunts at night, the big cat was believed to possess the power to cross over to the dark world of the spirits. The brightly-painted wooden mask above uses stiff animal hair to represent the jaguar's whiskers and eyebrows.

Masks used in la Danza de los Murciélegos (the Dance of the Bats). These animals have been considered sacred for thousands of years because of their association with darkness and caves--seen as entrances to the underworld. The Aztecs revered a Bat god called Camazotz.  However, worship of bats may have originated with the Zapotecs, almost 1,400 years before the Aztecs made an appearance. A beautifully caved bat mask made of jade with shell eyes and teeth has been unearthed at the ancient Zapotec capital of Monte Alban and archeologists date it to 150 BC. The masks above are from Guerrero State and were carved from wood.

Crocodiles are another important symbolic animal. Sometimes masks, like the wooden one above, depict only the head of the croc. Others are constructed to show the whole animal and are worn around the waist of the dancer. The head and mouth extend in front of the dancer and the tail stretches out behind his back. Crocodiles were called Cipactli by the Aztecs and were associated with the cardinal direction of east. The 260-day Aztec religious calendar was divided into twenty segments of 13 days, with each segment related to a particular god. The crocodile was the symbol of one of these segments and the associated god was Ometeotl, god of duality and creator of all the other gods. The god Tezcatlipoca was one of Ometeotl's sons. According to the mythology, he lost his foot to a great crocodile monster. Perhaps the message was: don't mess with Dad's pet.

This extraordinary mask and head dress may come from the Colima area. There was no informational sign about its origin, but I encountered a very similar mask when we visited a crafts workshop in the City of Colima. The head dress worn by this kneeling figure is huge and must be quite heavy. However, its size and weight are not the most unusual aspects of this work.

The open mouth of the bull mask contains another mask with a stylised human face. I have seen a lot of masks in Mexico, but have encountered few that contain a mask-within-a-mask. In addition to that oddity, the wearer can manipulate the head dress with the tasseled cord in this left hand, as well as the one hanging down on the right. What exactly happens when he pulls the cords is still a mystery to me, but the effect is no doubt spectacular.

This completes Part 5 of my series on San Luis Potosí. Next time, we will continue with the Mask Museum to see masks that reflect the Spanish Conquest and the imposition of Catholicism on the native population. If you enjoyed this posting, don't hesitate to leave a comment or a question. You can do so either by leaving your message in the Comments section or by emailing me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Wow - you captured some very unique masks there. We live in both Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca and Xico, Veracruz - most masks seen appear to be common to both area - but many of yours displayed on quite unusal. Thanks for the tour.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim