More than a pretty face

October 02, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

The more than 40 Latin American dance masks on display at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts were crafted in the 20th century, but the history of the tradition they represent extends through ages and cultures long past.

The exhibit is titled "Máscaras." The Spanish word is a combination of "ms," which means more, and "caras" - face - implying that a mask is an "additional" or "enhanced" face, writes Jose Rodeiro, coordinator of art history at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, N.J.

Masks can be a way for people to express themselves, to become something else, Rodeiro says.

"Which is something we all do," he adds, laughing that he puts on his "professor aura" as he prepares to teach a university class.


Rodeiro wrote the catalog for the exhibition. His text presents information on the tradition of making Latin American masks and its connection to similar traditions in other parts of the world. There were mask wearing festivals and practices during the days of the Roman Empire, Rodeiro writes, some of which were adapted and continued in Christian ritual.

Four types of masks were predominant in pre-Columbian cultures - the societies in Latin America before Spanish colonization, Rodeiro writes. Ceremonial masks depicted gods. There were mask costumes for military societies - jaguar and eagle warriors, for example - processional masks for ritual ceremonies and burial masks representing the dead.

Many cultures have traditions with common roots. Making and wearing masks is such a tradition. "It's universal," says Hugo W. Morales, who, along with Hugo X. Bastidas, curated the exhibition.

A mask is more than just a pretty or scary face, he says. "They do have meanings."

Morales is involved with the exhibit through his volunteer work with the university's Council on Hispanic Affairs, which is dedicated to promoting and preserving the traditions of Latin American and Caribbean cultures.

Morales, a painter by trade, owns some of the masks in the exhibit. A native of Ecuador, he has returned to that country and traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America. He's been collecting for more than 20 years, and, on a personal level, the masks also serve as reminders of his travels.

The masks in the exhibition are not artifacts but reproductions of ancient masks found in archaeological digs. The Spanish conquerors destroyed vast quantities of Amerindian art, Rodeiro writes, and more was lost to war, tropical climate, natural disasters and looters.

But the tradition - and its art - remain.

"Máscaras" will be on view at the Hagerstown museum through the end of November.

Morales says he hopes that the timing of the show will attract some children, who at this time of year do a little mask making and wearing of their own.

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