UBC Home

The Collections


Curatorial + Design

Library + Archives

Collections + Research Stories See all

Collections + Research Stories

Theatrum Mundi: Masks + Masquerades in Mexico + the Andes

The Indigenous peoples of Mexico, Guatemala and the Andes have endured more than five centuries of pitiless violence and atrocities inflicted by colonial and independent governments, missionaries and corporate interests. Yet they never completely abandoned their earlier beliefs and practices. Instead, they have constantly rearticulated them into religious syntheses that continued to sustain their discrete ethnic identities throughout the 20th century. Even after central Mexico’s population shrank from an estimated 25.2 million on the eve of the Spanish invasion to less than 2.7 million in 1585, Indigenous world views
remained a powerful force for mobilizing political resistance against the imposition of European thoughts and habits.

Devil mask and costume. Dalio Ángel Perusquia, San Bartolomé de Agua Caliente, Guanajuato. Performed in Easter battle between Christians and devils (before 2018). MOA Collection: 3289/1, 3289/2. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

Throughout pre-Hispanic Mexico and the Andes, masquerade expressed fundamental and powerful theological and political beliefs, such as the divine origins of their ruling hierarchies, Earthly power, and authority. Masks were placed over mortuary bundles (containing the remains of powerful leaders) before cremation. Some masks and their related costumes were monopolized by high-ranking Mexica (Aztec) priests to impersonate deities while animal costumes complete with helmets, most commonly representing the two military orders of jaguars and eagles, were used in ritual combat.

Spanish forces and evangelizers interacted differently with pre-existing types of social organizations to produce new types of cultural expressions that included dance dramas and masquerades. Many colonial period dance dramas and masquerades have in modern times undergone both simplification and redirection. Combined with newly invented, often commoditized, secular usages, carnival festivities,
folklore competitions, wrestling matches, children’s plays, comic and television heroes and villains, masks incorporate transnational and local images. In religious ceremonies, wrestling, film and activism, masks are highly adaptive and visible icons of 20th and 21st century Mexican sensibilities and identities. Especially ubiquitous are the Concheros, who, adorned in pre-Hispanic style costumes, flamboyant headdresses, and face and body paint, congregate in the Plaza del Zócolo, the heart of Mexico city’s ancient ceremonial centre when they are not participating in catholic festivals. Elaborate and striking cloth masks are used in lucha libre, Mexican free-style wrestling.

Conchero dancers. Tepeyac, Mexico City. Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, December 12, 2019. Photo by Anthony Shelton.

Legendary former social and community activists, like Fray Tormenta, Superbarrio, Ecologistica Universal and Super Gay, all identify with the tradition, albeit in different ways. In the 1970s–1980s, some of these modern heroes, together with popular wrestlers like El Ángel Azul and El Santo, gave rise to their own genre of films based on intrigues and fantasies in which they pitted their strength and intellect against invasions of vampires, werewolves, mummies and other supernatural and alien creatures. Nineteenth- and 20th-century Mexican masquerades can be divided into three categories, based on their historical antecedents and content.

The first includes performances derived from Catholic single-act sacramental or mystery plays—autos de fe—directly imported from the Iberian Peninsula and used to impress on the Indigenous population the importance and implications of the Catholic faith. The first mystery play, … The Last Judgement, to be performed in Nueva España (Mexico), was staged in Tlatelolco in either 1531 or 1533 (ten or twelve years after the Spanish Conquest). The second type of drama, the most common type today found throughout Mexico and Guatemala, is the combat play imported to Nueva España from Spain, which re-enacted the Iberian battles between Moors and Christians, ending with the defeat of the Moors and the acceptance of baptism by their leader. The third category of dance dramas includes those that more clearly hybridize pre-Conquest Mexican history with later narrative episodes, choreographies, or religious cycles.

Masqueraders wearing papier mâché masks of a severed head, surmounted by decapitated body, and of a devil. Santiago Matatlán,Oaxaca. Days of the Dead, 2019. Both masks made by “Guero” Pérez. Photo by Anthony Shelton.

Making masks is, and always has been, a vocation, while performing them is an exalted obligation. Performers and dance masters are the outward expression of ceremonial masquerade; mask makers are its introspective artists and technicians. Carvers embark on their vocation at an early age. In addition to developing their technical skills, carvers must have an intimate knowledge of the characters, history and structure of the dances in which the masks are used and, when still extant, the ritual prescriptions connected to readying themselves to begin their work, including the necessary recitation of prayers and preparation of offerings before a tree can be felled for its wood.

Many mask makers trace their calling to a family vocation or to a supernatural event communicated to them through dreams. In all cases dreams remain an appropriate and important channel that connects the world of gods and the saints to that of humanity. Mexican masks are not remnants or survivals of a pre-modern world that no longer exists. Nor can they simply be regarded as commoditized aesthetic expressions produced under capitalist economic conditions. The process through which the past is continually reproduced and modified drags it constantly back into the present and allows performers and audiences to articulate a modern and cosmopolitan identity with expressions of regional solidarity.

Masks used in combat dramas representing Spaniards. MOA Collection (top row, left to right): 2655/154, 2655/155, 2655/22. (bottom row): 2655/35, 2655/149, 2655/40, 2655/123. Photo by Alina Ilyasova.

Theatrum Mundi: Masks and Masquerades in Mexico and the Andes is available at the MOA Shop ($60).

Anthony Alan Shelton served as the Director of MOA from 2004 to 2021. He is a professor of Art History, Visual Art and Theory at the University of British Columbia and works in the fields of museology, cultural criticism, and the anthropology of art and aesthetics. He has published extensively in the areas of visual
culture, critical museology, history of collecting and various aspects of Mexican cultural history. Based on Anthony’s archival and fieldwork carried out over 46 years, Theatrum Mundi: Masks and Masquerades in Mexico and the Andes contextualizes MOA’s extensive collection of Mexican and South American masks and costumes.

Excerpted and edited from Theatrum Mundi: Masks and Masquerades in Mexico and the Andes by Anthony Alan Shelton. Copyright 2021 by Museum of Anthropology at UBC and the author. Text copyright by individual contributors. Excerpted with permission from Figure 1 Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.