Lily Melendez

Project #3: Museum of Attention: The Truth Behind the Mask

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): Demasking Death

Calavera (skull) Masks (Ancient Mesoamerica to Present Day); Mexico City; 

Clay, paper mache, paint, feathers

Celebrated each year from October 31 to November 2, Día de los Muertos serves as a celebration of those passed and a remembrance of their souls. During the festivities, families wear calaveras to resemble the dead in a way that incorporates vibrant colors and warm tones. Wearing these masks, the celebrators reinvent an aspect of humanity, commonly seen as dreadful, as something to be honored and looked upon with light and energy. 

Cultural Masking: An Art of Transformation

Female (Pwo) Mask (19th to early 20th century);

Chokwe peoples; Angola, Central Africa;

Wood, fiber, brass, pigment

Adorning masks that resemble their womanly ancestors, the Chokwe peoples explore the passage to adulthood and the celebration of womanly bodies in a visible fashion. The mask represents their cultural affinity of matrilineal importance as well as the hope for eternal fertility, beauty, and prosperity. While performing, the Chokwe wear masks to mark their generational and ethnic identities and honor ideal women who have effectively given birth.

As a collection, both the calavera and Female (Pwo) masks utilize visible assemblages to celebrate invisible identities and cultural attitudes by using the face as a screen. The masks allow the human body to be a projection of sorts, attending to details and color to evoke certain emotions. In their design, the masks focus our attention on the experience of transformation. What I mean by this is the masks facilitate a reawakening or reshaping of human values and beliefs. In the case of the Pwo mask, the Chokwe peoples craft the coverings in a way in which the observer must focus on redefined ideals of womanly beauty. For example, all Pwo masks make use of symmetrical shapes, slender noses, and glowing reddish brown surface to highlight the value of healthy skin for women. Considering the Mexican and Latin American masks, we are also made to focus on customary symbols of death, such as the stark whiteness of the skull, in juxtaposition with lively yellow and orange colors. This colorful assemblage forces us to question our understanding of death and engages us in a transformative moment of reflection. It is important to note both masks allow us to change our perceptions of humanity as we consider a new presentation of the human face.

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