Goodbye, good friends

Bryan Stevens, the author of this blog and my beloved father, died suddenly on Sunday, March 15th of complications of kidney cancer. I’m glad to say that the he passed comfortably and quickly, surrounded by his family. He treasured this community very much, and was proud of the conversations that took place here. Thank you for sharing his enthusiasm and appreciation of Mexican history and culture.

His mask collecting influenced our family life in many ways. A few examples are below…

A collage of a jaguar mask made by my son for his grandfather.

A drawing of many masks in our house done by one of my brothers as a present for our father.

And, my favorite: my father, circa 1990, giving a talk on masks to a local women’s club, with one of my brothers and a friend assisting. You can see the great merriment on his face–my father at his best.


Peace be with all of you.

-Julia Stevens

A Return To Some Basic Introductory Material from August 2014

When I first began this blog, I made it an immediate point to begin warning you of the risks involved in Mexican Dance Mask collecting. Briefly, there are many falsely presented masks being made in Mexico, some remarkably non- traditional, some falsely given an appearance of great age, and more than a few attributed to towns that don’t even exist, or to others that actually have no masking traditions. Today I am referring you back to one of those early posts. I hope that you find this useful. Here is the link.

Bryan Stevens



Another Example From The Sierra De Puebla Of The Use Of Models

Last week I discussed the use of “models” by mask carvers in the Sierra de Puebla, explaining that when a carver wished to make a mask in an unfamiliar style he might commonly use the style of another carver as his point of departure. Today I will provide another example that I particularly like because it involves one great master borrowing from another. This example was initially presented in my Masks and Puppets book on pages 168 and 169, but described in very small print.

We might begin with material presented in Chapter 5 of my book—”The Process of Looking at Masks.” There I explained how one could look for tell-tale details in a mask to determine the probable carver, but also taking into account that a carver’s style might change in a subtle way over the many years of his carving career. I illustrated these two points by comparing four Hormega ( a variant of Santiaguero) masks that were carved by one of my favorite carvers, Benito Juárez Figeroa, whose carving career spanned many decades, from about the age of 18 until his death in 1994, at the age of 84. I devoted pages 132 to 141 to his other masks, along with some that were carved by his relatives. On December 1, 2014 I published a post about these Hormega Masks by Benito; by then I had five of them. Here is that link.

We don’t need to go beyond the first mask in that link, which I judged to be the oldest, to see the style that another master, Roberto Villegas Santiago, used as a model. Here is a side view of that mask from my collection.

Roberto and Benito had been friends, and I suspect that Roberto might have obtained his similar mask directly from Benito.

For comparison, here are side views of the model and the mask that Roberto Villegas Santiago was in the process of creating.

He is just roughing out the shape of this mask.

Two details were of particular interest to me:

1. Roberto made his friend’s design, but added on carved ears in his own traditional style. Benito’s Hormega masks did not come with ears.

2. Roberto chose to carve the mustache and eyebrows in low relief. For such curling mustaches and other elements, Benito usually simply painted these features.

Here is an additional interesting feature. Many mask carvers in Mexico begin the carving process by roughly shaping a log with a machete and then switching to chisels to create the details. Master carvers sometimes mark out measurements and saw the wood to a preliminary shape, which they call a “blank.” This is such a blank. It is nearly ready to be shaped by chisels .

In this photo Roberto is standing at a wooden workbench that he had long ago constructed for himself. He had also made his own table saw, mounting an electric motor and armature onto a similar wooden frame. The blank was at least partially cut out on his table saw, as were the smaller pieces of wood in this photo. In this view, Robert is demonstrating that he intends to glue these wooden blanks to the faces of the blanks, to permit him enough thickness to carve such long noses. You  may be able to see, in the earlier photos, that Benito had done the same.

I attempted to buy one of the masks that Roberto was making on this day, but he explained that he was filling an order from an Hormegas Dance troupe for 8 masks, and so all of these were already promised. He said that I could order one for myself, but that it would be some time before he could fill that order.

One year later I received the mask that I ordered from Roberto.



The back has been smoothed with a chisel but the mask has never been danced.

Next Week- I plan to recycle some of the earliest posts that explained about Decorative masks, because over the intervening years many readers have sent in photos of such masks, wondering if they were traditional.

Bryan Stevens


The use of Models

A friend asked me about one of the masks in my Mexican Masks and Puppets book, and it occurred to me that because the mask photos in the book are small, there was seldom room for more than two views, and the text itself was small and limited due to space constraints, some details from the book would be far easier to illustrate on this blog. Today’s discussion concerns masks on pages  110  and 113, the latter carved by José González Galindo.

I met José in December, 2007. He owned a small general store in Coxquihui, Veracruz, and behind the store he had a workshop where he carved masks. There I saw a broken fragment of a mask; it was obviously old. Looking at it more closely, I was impressed that it had once been a very beautiful mask. José explained that he had not been the carver, and indeed the carver was unknown. He had obtained it somewhere, and kept it as a model. In the Sierra de Puebla, a mask maker will use a mask that he likes to create something similar. Usually a carver would not make an exact copy, but the model would suggest a shape and proportions, maybe even some design details. Often a young carver would model his first masks on those of his father, and then he would go on to develop his own style. Here is this model used by José. I believe it was meant to represent a Perro (d0g).

This mask was very finely carved, with carefully shaped openings for vision, and beautiful features such as the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and teeth. This was a mask carved by an unknown master carver, decades earlier.

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Another Mystery Arrival, From Chiapas

Last week some of us waited together to see some new arrivals from a Texas collection that had originally been gathered in the 1950s and later. We examined seven masks from the Sierra de Juárez that had earlier been in the collection of Rex and Dolly Marcum, who lived in San Gabriel Etla, Oaxaca and are now long deceased. I have other masks in my collection that were obtained later from their estate.

Today we will examine an eighth mask from the Texas collection. This one is clearly not in the style of the Sierra de Jauréz and is not from the Marcum collection. It was obtained from a female dealer in the city of Oaxaca, probably in the late 1970s or early 1980s; the seller recalls simply that this dealer’s name was Schöndube, and I am assuming that she was a dealer in Mexican folk arts such as textiles, pottery and masks. The Cleavers have vague recollections of visiting Schöndube’s shop in the 1970s. This is of course an unusual name to encounter in Mexico, and a search yielded only a few individuals with that name.

Fortunately, the little that was discovered seemed sufficient to shed some light on this dealer and her family. First I located a print for sale on the Etsy™ site that was labeled as the work of “C. Schöndube, 1963.”

Here is the link to that interesting and attractive print, which illustrates the variety of native costumes worn by indigenous women in the state of Oaxaca. Evidently C. Schöndube had some expertise in this subject, which would certainly fit with the profession of managing a Mexican folk art store in the same state.

Then I discovered that the various individuals with the Schöndube name were all members of one family. The relevant passage is in the second paragraph—”Poco antes …”

“un vendedor de maquinaria, que procedía de la Ciudad de México, el alemán Enrique Schöndube, quien levantó un pedido. En uno de sus viajes por occidente, se enamoró y se casó con una tapatía, Luisa Kebe Quevedo, hija de Eduardo Kebe y de Luisa Quevedo, procrearon a: Luisa, Isabel, Margarita, Enrique, Otto y Clotilde. [Enrique Schöndube, a German person who sold machinery, met, fell in love with, and apparently married Louisa Kebe Quevedo. A list followed of their six children.]” Apparently our person of interest was Clotilde. Her brother Otto was a 20th century Mexican archeologist. I am sure that this was an interesting family.
I don’t tell you all of this because I find it interesting in itself, but to introduce this dealer with the hope that some of you can add to the story. Probably she sold many interesting masks. Maybe some of you have masks in your collections that passed through her hands? I would love to hear about such things.
Here is the mask that the Texas collectors purchased from [Clotilde] Schöndube. It once had a Schöndube label, but that has been lost.
This is a very rare mask, one that I have never previously seen. I first wondered about the purpose of the sawn slits across the forehead and above and below the mouth. My guess is that some sort of fiber, such as bundles of sisal, might have been tucked into the grooves to provide eyebrows and a mustache.

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New Arrivals From The Sierra de Juárez, Oaxaca

Last week I resurrected some material from earlier posts in anticipation of some new arrivals that I am highlighting this week. Unfortunately the newcomers were delayed. Necessity being the mother of invention, this situation led me to an unusual strategy—I allowed you to encounter these masks from the same limited images that triggered my purchase of this group. Then when the masks did arrive, I added better photos to this post.

[February 12, 2020- Sure enough, the box containing six masks from Oaxaca arrived two days later, so I have added those photos. However, the box with the Tusked Negrito was further delayed by a Winter storm, arrived today (Friday, February 14).

I’m sure that my experience is familiar to some of you, that one arranges a purchase and then encounters the vicissitudes of delivery!

Here are the initial photos. The first reveals a typical Tusked Negrito mask from the Sierra de Juárez, with leather tusks. It closely resembles the pair in last week’s post, except that it appears to be more worn. It had been part of a mid-20th century collection in Oaxaca that was assembled by Rex and Lolly Marcum (which I had misspelled as Markham) of San Gabriel Etla, Oaxaca.

It looks worn and battered, doesn’t it. But these are rare masks, and it does seem to be complete and intact.

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A Review of Tusked Negrito Masks

In my posts of August 13 and 20, 2018, I featured Tusked Negrito masks from the Sierra Juárez of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Currently I am anticipating the arrival of several more masks from this tradition, and I hope to share these with you in next week’s post. So, in the absence of any new material at present, I am going to recycle what I wrote in August 2018 as an introduction to the new arrivals that we will examine next week.

In 1975, Virginia E. Miller, Dudley M. Varner, and Betty A. Brown published an important article in The Masterkey, the Journal of the Southwest Museum (Volume 49, No. 2, April-June 1975, pp. 44-50)—”The Tusked Negrito Mask of Oaxaca.” The authors began by noting that these are but one example of a larger class  of darkly colored masks worn by “masked buffoons” who “act as clowns, masters of ceremony, and policeman during the ceremonies (page 44).” Tusked Negrito masks are used in Zapotec and Mixe towns in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. “They usually appear in pairs accompanying the Plume Dance” and these masks can also be used in related dances in this region, sometimes in larger groups. There are similar snouted masks that lack tusks in neighboring communities. The authors speculate that the Tusked Negrito image may be a survival of some pre-Conquest tradition. In earlier posts I have shown other examples of masks worn by black-faced ritual clowns, such as Yaqui Pascolas and Negritos from the coastal Mixtec towns.

The Tusked Negrito article includes a photo of four Tusked Negrito masks from the Paul Pérez collection. Here is that image.

The Paul Pérez collection is currently available for viewing in the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, The University of Texas at Austin, and in the link that follows you can see color photos of three of those four masks—numbers 20, 78, and  81, plus several others (94 and 176). There are many other interesting masks in this collection, of which I would like to highlight just one more—#101—which would appear to be a rather rare example of a Chilolo mask from Oaxaca.

In May of 1996 I found a wonderfully worn Tusked Negrito mask in Austin, Texas, at the Tesoros Trading Company, an ethnographic arts store

Here is that mask. The wooden or leather tusks are missing, but the recesses that had held them are evidence of their earlier presence.

Tusked Negrito masks tend to have snouted mouths. The tusks can be made from leather or wood, in the absence of suitable animal tusks.

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Some Recent Yaqui Masks From Ebay

Beginning in August 22, 2016, I posted about a number of masks that had been carved by various members of one of my favorite Yoeme carving families- Rodrigo Rodríguez Muñoz, Jesús Rodríguez Muñoz, their father Preciliano , and his brother Conrado Cupiz. Some of those masks were from my collection, and many others were from the collection of Barney Burns and his wife, Mahina Drees. Recently I had the opportunity to add some additional masks to my collection that were carved by Rodrigo, Jesús, and Preciliano, and I will show these masks purchased on EBay™ in today’s post.

First up is a really typical Perro (canine) Pascola mask in the style of Rodrigo Rodriguéz Muñoz. I would call this his basic canine design, which he elaborates on in other masks with open toothy mouths. It was originally purchased in Sonora in about 1990.

These ears are so typical for this carver.

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Calavera (Skull) Masks From A Collector In Australia

Recently Michael Esson contacted me regarding his interest in masks with the faces of skulls. He lives in the area of Sidney, Australia, however he has collected Calavera (skull) masks from far away places such as Mexico and the Himalayas. His inquiry led me to review posts about Calavera masks that had appeared in my blog, whereupon I realized that there were these masks from my collection that I had intended to include, but never did. You will have seen those masks in three recent posts, as I attempted to correct these omissions. Today I am pleased to put up photos of some of Michael’s skull masks from Mexico. As you will see, some of them came to him without much information. Fortunately a few had better documentation, and I will begin with those.

This wonderful mask came with an old tag- “Danza de las Tres Potencias (three powers), Guerrero.” El Sueño, the title painted across the forehead, might be translated as “a dream or vision,” in this instance possibly “your worst nightmare.”

This mask has such a presence.

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A Remarkable Calavera Mask from the State of Mexico

Today we will look at the last of my overlooked skull masks. I purchased this one from Spencer Throckmorton in December, 1995, in Manhattan. Written in ink on the back are the words—Luvianos, Estado de Mexico. Luvianos is the name of a town located in a rural area that is about 130 miles Southwest of Mexico City.

I don’t know whether this mask originally had a gap in the teeth. Perhaps the gap was created by a dancer, to accommodate a cigarette or to enhance ventilation.

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