More Blackmen Masks from Michoacán

This week I will show some additional Negrito or Blackman masks from Michoacán.

In her chapter about the Dance of the Blackmen, in Behind the Mask in Mexico, Esser (1988, pp. 107-141) reported that there was a history of Blackmen dancing with wooden masks in the town of Sevina (p. 122), but that the dance was no longer performed there with such masks at the time of her research (1970-1975). In my collection are three wooden Blackman masks from Sevina that I obtained from Jaled Muyaes and Estela Ogazón, in 1997 and 1999. They had undoubtedly collected these masks in the 1960s or 70s, but obviously the three must have already been old and retired from use by that time.

Here is the one I bought first, in February 1997. It is the most refined of the three. I call your attention to the unusual shape of the mouth. Also note that there is a hole that might have held a representation of a cigarette. The chin is knob-shaped.

Long ago this mask was painted black, but it seems that that paint has nearly worn off. There are just three holes around the forehead.

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Masks of the Blackmen

Janet Brody Esser was the editor of a superlative book about Mexican dance masks—Behind the Mask in Mexico (1988). In that volume she authored a chapter about dances and masks in the Mexican state of Michoacán that feature dance personages called Negritos, or “Blackmen” (pages 106-141). In my post of September 18, 2017 I included a mask from that dance of a Negrita, a female mask with a black face. In today’s post some of the masks have unquestionably male faces, while others cause one to wonder about the intended gender. I will start with a pair of Blackman masks in the style of Cherán, Michoacán. I purchased this pair from Jaled Muyaes and Estela Ogazón in 1998.

The front piece of the headdress is made of metal, probably recycled tin. A mirror and strings of yellow beads are mounted on this plate. The plate itself is attached to the crown of a woven straw hat that is covered with cloth, and decorated with small cones of colored foil. Tinsel and ribbons hang from this headdress.

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Different Hands: Curpite Masks By Other Carvers

Janet Brody Esser studied the masks and dances of this region of Michoacán during the period from 1970 to 1975. Her doctoral dissertation on this research, Winter Ceremonial Masks of the Tarascan Sierra, Michoacan, Mexico, was published by University Microfilms in 1978 in two volumes. A book based on this research followed in 1984—Máscaras Ceremoniales de los Tarascos de la Sierra de Michoacán, published by the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, in Mexico City. The advantage of the latter book is that it includes many of the same photos as those in the PhD thesis, but because these are printed rather than photocopied, they are better images. In these volumes Esser described a variety of related traditions, which reflected local customs and individual carvers. The masks in today’s post will illustrate some aspects of this variety. One focus of Esser’s research was on the masks of the Viejos, or Curpites (Esser 1978, pp. 60-134; 1984, pp. 57-121).

When Dinah Gaston visited Zacán, Michoacán in the 1990s. she met an elderly carver there, Alejandro Sanchez Mercado Senior. She purchased masks that were made by Señor Sanchez Mercado for the Curpites dance and subsequently danced. Later she sold those masks to me, one by one over a period of six years. They are of interest because they look fairly different from those of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro. At some point she bought several much older Tarépiti masks that had been repainted as Negritos/Blackmen, and I bought one of those. In the Máscaras Purepechas Catálogo 2002 survey there are masks by Alfredo Sánchez Mercado of Zacán, who may be the son of Alejandro.

Here is the trio of masks that were purchased directly from the carver, Alejandro Sanchez Mercado Senior, by Dinah Gaston. I took this photo to demonstrate the disparity in their sizes. Maringuilla (on the viewer’s left) is so small in comparison to the Curpite (on the viewer’s right).

Here is Tarépiti, or Grandfather. Note how different he looks, compared to the comparable masks from Nuevo San Juan. I bought this mask from Dinah Gaston in 2006. She had held him in her personal collection for years, out of affection for this elderly carver.

Look how wrinkled and somber this mask is.

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