The Mexicans in the small farming villages who made masks for religious celebrations had a sense of humor about religion, says Smithsonian curator Robert Laughlin. That's why a painted red face mask with phallic nose is no affront to the Aztec wind god.
The mask is one of about 185 on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. All are from Mexico, mainly the western coastal state of Guerrero (where Acapulco is) and areas farther south. The artwork represents a variety of cultural backgrounds in Mexico.
Most of the masks date back 60 or 70 years; the oldest, 150 years.
The exhibit, which will stay on the third floor of the museum through the end of this year, consists of masks displayed on stands and on stark white walls that contrast with the deep bright colors.
The maks were made to be worn by dancers during religious and political holiday celebrations. The shapes are extraordinary: There is a ripply green armadillo with another small armadillo on top. There's another, this one made by an artist who was both rasting and under the influence of "magic" mushrooms -- a mushroom whose active chemical ingredient is hallucinogenic. The result was a smooth black face mask with red rimmed eyes and four horns sticking our of the head.
The masks are made of different woods (some very light), copper, and leather.
All were bought over the years by collectors Donald and Dorothy Cordry of Cuernavaca. Donald Cordry, who sold the entire collection to the Smithsonian, died the night it was shipped here last fall. According to Laughlin, Cordry's collection is one of the two largest in the world.
"These represent purposeful mystery," said Laughlin. "You're not supposed to explain them. There's a mixture of sacredness and profane, ribaldry and seriousness."