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Past, present, gods, man meld in Mexican masks exhibition

staff report • Oct 13, 2012 at 10:48 AM

Laden with profound ritual meanings, the “Masks of the Michoacán” — or Máscaras de Michoacán — exhibition, on display through Oct. 25 at ETSU’s Slocumb Galleries, is a mosaic of Michoacán culture. The exhibition features 40 Mesoamerican masks from the Mask Museum in the Centro Cultural Antiguo Colegio Jesuita in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, that embody not only a traditional and ongoing craftsmanship but also cultural significance.

An essential element of human ritual used during Colonial times, each of these masks has played a role in ceremonial dances within communities that continue to keep alive the festivities and traditions inherited from their ancestors. The masks represent the folk art of Michoacán and illustrate a unique artistry of carving, pigmentation and expressiveness of features and details, such as fangs, horns, necklaces, headdresses, eyes painted or made of glass, mustaches, carved beards and even added hair or eyebrows.

“Michoacán is an area today that still has a vital mask-making tradition,” said Dr. Lindsey King of the ETSU Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “It’s not a thing of the past ... It’s not just a tourist thing.

“Rather than thinking of a deity way up in heaven, or wherever they are, the common people can put these masks on, and when they have these masks on, they are assuming the role that that deity would play. They can act out social lessons or solve social conflict or bring different people together. These masks are symbols that can be used by ordinary people to kind of invigorate a ritual.”

The collection is a treasure rescued and assembled from private collections and is presented by the Tennessee Consortium for International Studies as its fourth art exhibition from Mexico. The ETSU exhibition is co-sponsored by the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, Multicultural Affairs, Slocumb Galleries and TnCIS.

To provide an understanding of the masks’ function and value, on Monday, Oct. 22, Dr. Marion Oettinger Jr. will present a lecture titled, “Dancing Faces: Mexican Masks in Cultural Context.” The lecture will begin at 6 p.m. in Ball Hall Room 127 and be preceded at 5 p.m. by a reception in the galleries. Both events are free and open to the public.

Oettinger is a cultural anthropologist specializing in Latin America and has been curator of the Latin American Art collection at the San Antonio Museum of Art since 1985. Between 1996 and 1998, he was project director for the installation of the museum’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Latin American Art, the most comprehensive treatment of Latin American art in the United States.

“Because we as a rule don’t use masks in our society, they have this kind of mysterious connotation to them,” King said. “Dr. Oettinger can show that these masks are used by different groups to help them kind of transcend the worlds and bring their deities into their own world.

“He truly is an authority. He has lived with these people. He has watched the masks being made. I am sure he will bring these objects to life. He will have stories and anecdotes from his own experiences. If he speaks as well as he writes, it will be a wonderful evening.”

Oettinger has lived and worked in various parts of the Latin world for more than 25 years, conducting research in Mexico, Central and South America, Spain and countries of the Caribbean. His current research deals with maritime votive art from Europe and the Americas. He also continues his research on Spanish folk art and its transformation in the Americas.

“This is a fantastic opportunity for us to learn more about the Mexican culture and its people, both by viewing the work in the exhibition and by hearing the lecture by Dr. Oettinger,” said Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts. “The traditional crafts and folk art produced in the State of Michoacán are of very high quality. The masks included in the exhibition represent a blending of traditions and influences of indigenous people, ancient ceremonies, Christian symbolism and beliefs, and more contemporary materials. The masks are still used today in dances and ceremonies that occur in different types of celebrations.”

Slocumb Galleries are open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, with extended hours during receptions. For information on the exhibition, call Karlota Contreras-Koterbay at (423) 483-3179.

To find out more about ETSU’s Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call (423) 439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/cas/arts/ or www.Facebook.com/ETSU.MBMSOTA.

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