the mask’s on you

Jaguar and Tiger, Chilapa, 2017. Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)

This is the fifth in my series of posts about my participation in an Applied Arts Scotland / British Council Crafting Futures residency, the work I’m developing as a consequence, and the impact of the project on my own practice. You can read parts one, two, three and four by following the links.


”A mask is not primarily what it represents, but what it transforms, that is to say, what it chooses not to represent. Like a myth, a mask denies as much as it affirms. It is not made solely of what it says or thinks, but what it excludes”

Claude Levi-Strauss

As Pilar and I develop our collaborative project – (our Cadáver Exquisito, which you can read more about here) – I’ve been doing some research about the different ways that masks and masked performance feature in the rituals and festivals of Mexico’s Indigenous communities. And I’ve been thinking a lot about how how masks in such communities work to disrupt boundaries (between life and death; self and “other”; human and animal; time and timelessness) and how ritual performance disturbs norms, hierarchies, conventions and fixed ideas of cultural identity (through a rich, inclusive syncretism; the embrace of the grotesque; the foregrounding of play and laughter; and through an anything-goes embodiment of the chaotic, the transitional the incomplete).

Pinguinos & Catrines, San Juan Mixtepec, 2015. Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)

As Alessandro Questa and Johannes Neurath put it:

“Masks and mask wearers poke fun at society’s contradictions—there is never any separation between the sacred and entertainment. Masks synthesise important yet wildly dissimilar values and narratives. By bringing ancestors back to life, switching gender roles or making animals dance, they provide ironic entertainment and help reunite or sever ties between spirits and humans; they are involved in death and regeneration or in the creation of the world.”

In Mexico, 63 distinct Indigenous languages are spoken, with more than 350 recognised dialects of such languages. While masked rituals are widespread throughout these communities, as one might imagine, the practice, content and context of such ritual varies wildly. In a really suggestive essay about the role of performance in Yaqui and Mayo communities, Marianna Keisalo has explored the complex boundaries that must be maintained between a mask and its human wearer, the performer and the ritual he performs, before he enters into the character of the persecuting Fariseo (Pharisee) or Chapayeca he’s chosen to embody throughout Semena Santa (Easter week)

Mayo Fariseos, 2008 Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)

“The Chapayecas express themselves in gestures. They move differently, bending their knees and leaning slightly forward and do everything backwards and left handed. . . . they come from “somewhere else” and act as if they are new to the world, easily surprised and spooked, curiously examining their environment.”

In many Mexican Indigenous communities, performance and ritual provide countless opportunities to have fun with the world by turning it back to front and upside down. Emma Yanes Rizo has written about how in Tetala de Ocampo, a village in the mountains of Puebla, carnival is a period in which everyone except the huehues (elders) enjoy saying the exact opposite of what they mean. Lovers tell each other of their long-standing hatred, parents encourage their children not to go to school (while intending, of course, that they should work and study hard)

“Skilled use of this reverse language,” Rizo writes, “constitutes a kind of collective mask where those who don’t physically wear a mask can also transform their lives in an instant. . . . the meaning of words takes on a new dimension and suppleness. . . . it may seem absurd, but nobody thinks of it that way. People assume this temporary change of language as part of their everyday life. They enjoy altering reality, though in fact everything remains the same.”

Chico con Cabello / Los Oberos, 2016. Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)

One reality that Mexican masked ritual has addressed for several centuries is the brutal and inescapable one of colonial encounter. As Phyllis Galembo puts it in her brilliant Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019):

“During the early years of the Spanish colony in Mexico a major objective was to eliminate native religions and convert local populations to Catholicism. Priests often resorted to music and dance as a method for teaching the new religion . . . acting out the final days of Jesus as a form of sacred theatre. Inevitably, teachings were filtered through [Indigenous] cultural perspectives, to the point where the Semana Santa festival reflects native cosmologies”

Danza de los Tocotines, Chignautla, 2015. Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)

One might be tempted to view this syncretic mingling of Christian and Indigenous cosmologies through the theoretical lens of ideas of hybridity or transculturation – that is, as the development of a unique third-space of creative utterance from the colonial contact zone. But hybridity has always seemed to me a bit too easy as a framework, too much a way, perhaps of making colonisation’s uncomfortable facts just a little more comfortable for the post-colonial commentator / observer. And though the form, content and purpose of masks differ widely between and among Mexico’s Indigenous communities, it seems possible (at least from the research I’ve been doing) to make a kind of general, and rather different point about their syncretic nature. Mexican Indigenous cosmologies are built around such powerful dualities (light and dark; life and death) and such broadly cyclical narratives (weather; agriculture; the seasons) that basically any cultural persona, story, symbol or object might be successfully appropriated for, and become available for expression within, its schema: Jesus and Pontius Pilate; Cortés and La Malinche; Santiago, San Juan Baptista, nineteenth-century French catrines (dandies); a group of celebrated formerly-enslaved Africans who led lost Zapotec traders to safety or, as Marianna Keisalo writes, for Yaqui and Mayo performers, the Pink Panther.

detail, Danza de los Tocotines, Chignautla, 2015. Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)

Objects and symbols which for a non-Indigenous observer might seem indelibly rooted and fixed in particular narratives of identity, nationhood (the American stars and stripes) or popular culture (Spongebob Squarepants; Homer Simpson) are, in fact, simply aesthetic markers with a wide range of possible meanings, all of which are equally available for appropriation into masked ritual, their assumed significance destabilised by the disruptive and humorous energies of performance.

Los Americanos, 2012. Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)

Indigenous masks are objects that are highly sought after by tourists, consumers, private collectors, and cultural institutions. But what exactly is it that we non-Indigenous viewers and consumers – individuals whose understanding of Indigenous cultural practice is at the very best poor or partial – exactly want from the ritual objects that so intrigue and delight us? What do we see when we gaze upon the mask’s blank features? And what happens when, animated by performance, the mask gazes straight back at us?

As Alessandro Questa and Johannes Neurath write:
“Masks are never self portraits, but rather explorations of the other. . . . they rarely depict the features of their Indigenous makers but something entirely different. Spirits, the dead, ancestors, extraordinary mountain beings, even gods and demons, all of these beings are considered Mestizos. . . in this way, Indigenous people first “capture” foreigners in their masks, before these are collected again by non-Indigenous people and their institutions.”

Moustachioed Mestizo masks from Veracruz, Tlaxcala, Guanajuato, and Micocàn. Ruth D Lechuga & Chloë Sayer, Mask Arts of Mexico (1994)

Indigenous masks are all too often appropriated as exotic objects – emptied of meaning by being treated as mere aesthetic objects with which to decorate the walls of a private home, restaurant, or posh hotel, as they are here at the Fife Arms – one of the places we visited with our Mexican friends during the Crafting Futures residency.

African masks at the Fife Arms

Painted over in flat, solid colours, the cultural specificity and context of this group of African masks is entirely lost. While I found the Fife Arms’ hollowing out of Indigenous cultures as interior decor rather depressing, I’ve recently been really excited by what I’ve been reading about the different ways in which Indigenous mask-makers might disrupt such processes of cultural appropriation, by effectively enacting their own kind of “othering”, through their own craft processes, of the consumers that buy their wares.

For example, in a really suggestive piece about Huichol and Cora performance, Johannes Neurath contrasts ritual masks – which are carefully stored in sacred caves, and never made available for sale or reproduction – with the masks that skilled Huichol and Cora craftspeople now make specifically for the ready market of collectors and consumers. Because “any drawing or sculpture of a god or sacred animal can acquire its own free will and agency and demand all kinds of ceremonial attention”, Huichol and Cora mask makers choose not to represent or incorporate their own spiritual schema into the pieces that they produce for sale, but rather intentionally and playfully mix up a wide range of images and symbols, creating a kind of jumbled aesthetic nonsense . . . which is itself what consumers have come to recognise as “authentically” Huichol. The beaded masks that are so prized by collectors and consumers because of their assumed ritual / spiritual significance as well as their aesthetic beauty are, in fact, objects emptied of all meaning whose sole purpose is commercial.

A mask removed from its performative or ritual context; a mask placed on a wall, is already, in some sense, an exotic object, devoid of meaning. So if, as a consumer or collector you seek access to the exotic in your purchase, then, say the skilled Huichol mask-makers, the laugh is definitely on you.

Tastuane, Combat Dance, Moyahua, 2018. Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)

I have found it interesting to think about how now-familiar ideas of cultural appropriation might be turned on their head by an inventive mask maker producing an object that becomes, for the appropriative consumer, a kind of self-portrait: an empty reflection of their own cultural assumptions, aesthetic preferences, commercial desires. And in intentionally making all their gods and demons Mestizo, many Indigenous masked performers create their own “othering” rituals, subverting cultural norms and hierarchies, enacting playful parodies of difference.

My reading about masks has revealed a huge variety of ways in which cultural identity might be creatively interrogated through ideas of performance and parody, laughter and disorder, dressing up, and ritual. Such ideas are really interesting to engage with and consider as Pilar and I begin to create our Mexican-Scottish Cadáver Exquisito.

Images and words from:

Ruth D Lechuga & Chloë Sayer, Mask Arts of Mexico (1994)
Phyllis Galembo, Mexico: Masks, Rituals (2019)
Claude Levi Strauss, The Way of the Mask (1979)
Essay by Emma Yanes Rizo in Máscaras de Carnaval (Artes de Mexico, no. 77, 2005)
Essays by Johannes Neurath, Alessandro Questa, and Mariana Keisalo in Máscaras: Rostros de la Ateridad (Artes de Mexico, no. 128 (2017)

Published last year, the Galembo book is bilingual, beautifully produced, very inspiring and well worth a look. Seek it out from your local independent bookseller!