Guatemalan Masks and their Meaning:
Of all the arts related to humankind the mask must be the oldest and the most universal. From prehistoric times until today the one behind the mask presents society with an awareness of personality, challenge, confrontation and drama.
In Mesoamerica, including the area which today is Guatemala, masks can be traced back to the Pre-classic period (2000 B.C. - 250 A.D.) although they may have been used long before. Masks have been used by nearly all other cultures throughout the Americas, the Mediterranean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands. Their primary purpose seems to be to transform the user into another being. They also appear to free the true personality, and very often seek to frighten. By transforming and simulating, the mask becomes a holy and magical object for many cultures.
As a vehicle of transformation, the mask allows its wearers to change their physical make-ups and their personalities. They can be patron saints, prehistoric deities with the power to heal and do miraculous things, or certain animals with all of their ancient magical powers.
The folklore of masks and ceremonies reaches one of its highest forms in Mexico and Central America, an area marked by its great pre-Columbian culture and its Spanish colonial conquests. Guatemala has perhaps the richest folk culture still left intact in any country in the Western Hemisphere. The indigenous populations of that geographically dramatic country have preserved their native culture despite the onslaught of many forces which have tried to destroy it.
In the rural areas and villages of Guatemala, populated by Maya-descendant Indians, masks have long been an integral part of life, binding the past and the present together with tradition, ceremony and celebration. For many generations, folk artists have skillfully created a variety of masks, carving them from many different woods and painting them in various colors. A simple primitive village life still exists in Guatemala, with villagers following ancient ways of life. The indigenous Guatemalan lifestyle is characterized by a deep appreciation of nature, a respect for their fellow people, an awareness of one's culture, and a participation in it.
Within a given genre of Guatemalan dance masks, the most apparent quality is their diversity. Although the regional centers from which they originate may be only a few miles apart, the masks show a unique and distinct character. While the mountain terrain creates strong barriers between Guatemalan Indian villages, the most important cause for mask variation is culture.
In the highlands, located in the country's central and western area, the heaviest concentrations of Indian cultures are found, along with their dance and mask traditions. The mountains are steep with few plateaus, and travel is difficult. The isolation created by a confining physical environment has not been total but has been effective, as evident by the more than twenty different dialects spoken today by the highland Indians of Guatemala, and by a wide variety of distinctive costumes identifying the village origin of the wearer.
The Indian's involvement in spiritual activity is an intense daily pursuit directed toward his village's patron saint and toward sacred places located in the surrounding countryside. Religion frequently blends native pagan rituals with Catholic traditions imposed on the native population in the wake of the Spanish conquest. In fact, religion is localized to the extent that it is said that there are as many variations in religion as there are hamlets, since each has its own set of supernatural myths, prayers and legends.
In their villages, Indians generally perform their masked dances because of religious motivation. Within the context of the demanding physical setting and the localized cultural variation, style differences among Guatemalan dance masks become reasonable. The masks are generally made for a particular dance, although the same mask may change character or role, depending on the needs of the dance and the desires of the dancers.
Masks may be either made by the dancers themselves or by experienced sculptors working for a specialized dance costume house ("moreria"). Regardless of the source, the masks are very regional in nature. The list of dances varies and includes both pre-Columbian dances, such as the Deer Dance, a ritual hunting dance of ancient Indian origin, and post-Conquest dances, such as the Dance of the Conquest, which depicts the crucial battle in which the Spaniards defeat the powerful highland Indian tribe Quiche.
Whatever their origin, the masked dances of Guatemala are a form of entertaining and popular rejoicing in which performers and spectators take part. They are usually conducted with marimba music and drums and flutes. Few steps are performed but the length of the actual dances together with the use of alcohol sometimes leads to trance.
Owners of masks pass them down from generation to generation and may also rent and loan them out. By handing over the mask the owner passes over to the new user the identity of the character in one of the traditional dances which the owner or his ancestors had chosen to represent during their lifetimes.
Although the influence of Guatemalan masks can be found in those of neighboring countries, like in regions of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, the quality of Guatemalan masks is far superior. However, even leaving aside the the ongoing oppression and exploitation of Guatemala's indigenous population, it is difficult to predict a future for these aspects of native folklore that include the masks, the costumes and the dances in which they are used. The preservation of these traditions is balanced against the economics of poverty which dictate a "more efficient" (Western) lifestyle, and the tendencies on the part of many Indian villagers to better their lots by discarding customs considered "backward" by non-Indians.
Sources: Gordon Frost, Guatemalan Mask Imagery, l976
Guatemalan Masks, The Pieper Collection, l988
Luis Lujan Munoz, Mascaras y Morerias de Guatemala, 1987
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