The Culture of Masks

September 9, 2005

WHO really knows what’s behind a mask? A new temporary exhibit by Central Bank Museums explores the history and culture of masks, showcasing relics from all over the region of this intriguing element of Central American culture.“Faces, Devils and Animals: Masks in Central American Festivals” will be on display in the Central Bank’s temporary exhibits room in downtown San José until Dec. 31.More than 250 pieces, including masks, headdresses and wardrobes from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama and Costa Rica, are exhibited alongside maps, photos and videos to educate visitors on their multifaceted cultural context.“Masks are one of the most passionate cultural expressions,” explained Felicia Carnacho, educational curator of Central Bank Museums and coordinator of the project.“They tell us about the communities that used them, the artists who made them and the people who danced with them.” At the exhibit’s Sept. 4 opening, traditional music, dance and theater surrounding masks came to life. Masked actors portrayed different characters in a mascarada, alongside cimarronas, traditional musicians, producing their distinctive melodies.The nonprofit organization In CORPORE, which has carried out a 20-year study of masks throughout Central America, collaborated with Central Bank Museums to design the exhibit, and collected the pieces from cultural organizations throughout Central America.Masks offer a glimpse into parts of Central American culture and history about which little is known, said InCORPORE’s Alejandro Tosatti.“The mask can be understood like a text,” Tosatti said. “It’s an entryway to grasp the culture and history of the groups that have preserved it.”Indeed, the colors and textures seen in the exhibit’s masks are as varied as the historical periods they reflect. Made of wood, paper and cloth, the masks represent faces, devils and a variety of animals, as the exhibit’s title suggests. Some draw on pre- Columbian influences, while others show traces of the Spanish colonial era and even modern North American culture.As a complement to the exhibit, BAC San José is sponsoring the publication of a bilingual catalog with extensive photos of masks and the festivals in which they are used. Articles by anthropologists Vania Solano and Johnny Cartín will delve further into the regional culture of masks.The Central Bank Museums are open every day from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Entrance is ¢1,000 (about $2) for Costa Ricans and residents, and $6 for foreign visitors. Admission is free the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call 243-4219.

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