Mexico: The Wisdom of the Mask-Makers

Every Mexican town usually has one or more artisans who make masks. They all have two things in common: pride in their craft and enormous talent.

Mask-makers must have a profound knowledge of their community’s traditional dances and each of the characters in them. They must be able to give a distinctive face to each mask, in keeping with its wearer’s role, and with the particular customs of the place. They usually have detailed knowledge of the origin and themes of regional dances, producing masks for use in their hometown and occasionally for neighbouring towns that don’t have a mask-maker. Their proficiency and expertise make them respected and much-loved individuals in their community. In the days leading up to the fiesta, the mask-maker’s house is a popular place. Dancers drop in either to pick up new masks or bring ones from previous years for repair. Broken masks are usually repaired with staples, strips of leather or tin affixed in such a way as to join any splits in the wood (or other material).

Masks can be made from a variety of materials, the most popular being wood. Mask-makers consider it to be a living entity that should be respected. There are certain rules for felling trees to make wooden masks, which are determined by the season and the phase of the moon. Opinions differ, but most claim that a tree must be cut when the moon is full. Juan Garcia, a mask-maker from Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca, believes that masks should be made during the rainy season, because in cold weather the wood may split. He also believes that a tree must be felled during a full moon to guard against pitting in the wood.

One possible scientific explanation for this is the fact that the moon exerts a gravitational pull on liquids, implying that wood cut during a full moon will be drier. It is not known whether the very nature of tzompantle (a wood whose resin is considered sacred) is the reason for its widespread use in making masks – one could almost say that this white, easy-to-carve wood is a ritual material. Two semi-hard woods frequently used for masks are red cedar and Mexican white pine (Pinus ayacahuite).

Ayacahuite means ‘tree of the mist’. Red cedar has a lovely colour and does not attract termites. White pine, as the name suggests, is a light-coloured wood with black grain, which also tends to repel termites, particularly when properly cut. Woodcarvers say that, unlike other pines, it has little grain and is consequently very suitable for carving. Very thin-walled masks can be carved from either wood.
The root of the poplar tree can also be whittled down to a very thin veneer because it does not chip easily. It is also highly water-resistant. As the water content evaporates, it takes part of the sap with it, leaving a very lightweight wood that will not lose its shape once dry.

Copal and copalillo wood, in their many varieties – predominantly from the sapindaceous family – are also widely used, especially in the region of Michoacán and Oaxaca, but also in Sonora and other states. They are soft woods suitable for all kinds of carving. Copal resin is Mexico’s most important native incense.

The clavelito is a leguminous shrub producing soft, easily carved wood. But it has a pronounced grain, so masks made out of it tend to break when they dry out. Its spongy texture makes it easy prey for termites, and unpopular in places where dancers are accustomed to reusing and refurbishing their masks often.

Some pine species are occasionally used for mask-making, although they chip easily when carved, due to their tough grain. Parota or cuanacastle of the leguminous family are hardwoods which, when cut, give off an unpleasant odour that artisans claim can produce sneezing and colds. They are more frequently used to make furniture than masks, as is Zopilote (meliaceous family), a type of mahogany. Thorny pochote bark is perfect for imitating an alligator’s rough wrinkled skin. Artisans display great creativity when incorporating a variety of local woods in order to achieve amazing effects.

The tools used to sculpt a mask are sharp instruments often devised by the artisans themselves. Machetes or knives are used to cut out the initial shape from a tree trunk. The carving is then honed with chisels, gouges, and other homemade tools. The inside is hollowed out with a drill, a gouge pounded by a mallet or stone, or a curved hoe. Finally, the surface is polished with a pumice stone, a coarse file or sandpaper.

To achieve facial expression on pieces carved with little detail, certain parts of the face are moulded from plaster and then affixed to the wood. Once this material has dried, the masks are polished. This procedure, called half-carving, can accentuate facial lines.

Now the piece is ready to be painted. This may be done directly on the wood, but a coat of whiting is usually applied first to masks with a fine finish. This coat, called stucco, is sanded to leave a perfectly smooth, shiny surface, ready for painting. This is standard procedure whenever oil or tempera painting is required, and frequently used in commercial enamelling and other procedures.

The oil paint consists of synthetic (aniline) or natural pigments, and calcareous soils dissolved in linseed oil. The mixture, referred to as mano, is applied to the stucco. In some places, the wet paint is specially treated to give it the velvety look of human skin. Ready-to-use industrial preparations have been on the market for some time. The oldest ones are oil-based or enamel wall paints, called zapolin in the villages. Oil paints have been very popular for painting masks due to their ease of application. They can be applied over a coat of stucco or directly to the wood. Because dancers prefer their masks to look shiny and new, after a number of years, they may bear several coats of zapolin.

Many masks are carved from wood down to the last detail, including eyes, beards and teeth. Sometimes a moustache or other feature is carved as a separate piece and then attached. But different materials are often added to make the mask look more realistic. Hair, beards, moustaches and eyebrows are simulated with ixtle fiber, horsehair, oxtails, boar bristles, human hair, goat’s hair, sheep’s wool or leather.

Eyes are sometimes created using marbles or mica, flat or curved pieces of glass painted on the back, or even real glass eyes. The finished masks are further embellished with gold fringe, coloured ribbons, papier-mâché beads, bells, glitter, and so forth. Some masks and helmets are traditionally made of layers of paper glued together with a homemade paste. Such masks are worn by children during Carnival and Mexican Independence Day celebrations.

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