Mexican Masks

An exhibit at Oakland-based Latin American Cultural Center (LACC) explores ancient traditions and modern-day iterations of the mask. 

Sandra Budd, assistant director and curator, says the exhibit MEXICAN MASKS: Symbols, Celebrations, Satire, and Safety, represents incredible diversity and creativity, displaying 88 traditional and contemporary masks from 19 Mexican states. Visitors can find a video presentation highlighting five dance mask festivals, several contemporary photos, and miniature mask festival figurines, too. “Three sections showcase some of the best mask-making artists in Mexico,” she said. “Each is unique and beautifully sculpted in wood or leather by the artists.”

Sixty of the masks come from a collector friend of Budd’s—Rob Gaston of Gaston Design in Fruita, CO. Together they coordinated the mask transfer to Pittsburgh via rental van, and Budd also hand-carried masks on loan from local collections. “The coordination is a longer process than actually transporting the objects,” she explained, “There is packing, crating, shipping, loan agreements, condition reports, insurance coverage.” 

Billie (Bill) R. DeWalt, PhD, senior advisor at the Latin American Studies Association, said, “[Gaston] has assembled a spectacular collection of both older and more recent masks that will delight visitors.” DeWalt, who lived in a small central Mexico village while completing his PhD in cultural anthropology, contributes a few masks, too. He recalled, “On any day in some part of Mexico there is likely to be a fiesta happening; people in masks are a part of many of those celebrations.”

Traditions intersected with the COVID-19 pandemic

During the pandemic, DeWalt began reading about Mexican masks and COVID intersecting in interesting ways. “One connection was that freestyle wrestlers in Mexico who had been using masks as part of their personas in the ring were going out in public to encourage people to wear masks,” he said. “Some, who had made versions of their masks to sell to fans, began making COVID masks as a means of replacing lost income.” Two Mexican anthropologists, Carlos Davila and Blanca Cardenas, began encouraging traditional mask makers to portray how they thought about COVID in masks; this exhibit showcases several of those creations. 

The mask Budd most looks forward to viewing? A full-size jaguar body mask, carved in wood.

Through April 20, 2024: Oakland’s Latin American Cultural Center (LACC) welcomes MEXICAN MASKS: Symbols, Celebrations, Satire, and Safety.

Story by Corinne Whiting

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