Organizing Your Masks
You can organize a mask collection in a number of ways. Pick the way that suits your interests and objectives. Here is the thought process I went through when considering a collection of Mexican masks. Much of this could be applied to masks from other parts of the world.
Donald Cordry (1907-1978) did much to popularize Mexican mask collecting with his famous book, Mexican Masks, published two years after his death. Some of the chapters– Iconography, Regional Styles, Links to the Past, Mask Makers, and Mask Materials– hint at ways of organizing a collection. I will discuss each of these categories and a few others, starting with the more obvious choices and working my way down to those that might be problematic for most of us.
Type This is what Cordry means by iconography. Most Mexican masks can easily be recognized as portraying men, women, animals, death, Satan, Pascolas and other fantasies. These types can then be further divided into smaller groups. For example, in the human male category one could include Moors, Old Men, Hermits, Fishermen, Negros, and other sub-categories; Animals could be Jaguars, Bulls, etc., etc.
Region In 1999 Barbara Mauldin’s Masks of Mexico divides her collection by state. Only those in Baja California, the Northeast, and the Yucatan peninsula are not included. This approach works well, but there are some interesting Mexican masks that can not be identified with having a particular geographic or ethnic derivation.
Culture A more academic approach might be catagorizing by ethnic group. Some of the indigenous people– Nahua, Maya, Zopotec, Mixtec, Otomi, Huastec, Purpecha, etc.– have strong masking traditions. Doing this would take more scholarship than most of us have.
Dance Groups of masks are danced together in most towns. In the Tastoane dance of Guerrero, for example, there are a number of characters, including the tracker, the dog and the jaguar among others. In general, masks are often carved as couples, trios and larger groups. A mask paired with it’s partner becomes more interesting due to their interplay.
Material What could be much easier than any of the above would be to separate carved wood, papier mache, leather, sheet metal, pottery, molded composites and found objects from each other. The problem is that over 90% of the collection will be carved wood masks, which is far and away the favored medium.
Age Masks don’t last very long because of wear and tear. Most collections will inevitably consist of recently made examples. Middle twentieth century masks are rare, and anything earlier is almost unheard of, even though the tradition goes all the way back to pre-Columbian times.
Maker There are a few well-known carvers both living and deceased, however most Mexican masks would have to be marked as anonymous.
Authenticity Old used masks, recently used masks, unused made in the traditional style and context but for sale, decoratives (always made for sale), and reproductions (fakes) is a method that would interest some collectors.
Size Helmet, face, partial, extra large, child-size, and miniature all come to mind and, of course, there are headdresses and costumes.
“Type” is my personal preference, with “Region” a close second. All of the others have some validity as well. It is possible to integrate several classifications into the presentation of a large collection with the placement of careful groupings. If one is archiving a collection by computer, all of the above can be used in the data base. RAI