Behind the Mask

Photo courtesy of Mel Piazza
Photo courtesy of Mel Piazza

The Santa Fe Art District is full of hidden gems that offer far more than free wine   and cheese on First Friday outings.

“You can truly have a vacation of the mind if you just know where to go,” says Maruca Salazar, the curator and executive director of Museo de las Americas. “There is such a wonderful possibility to learn about others, which can help change our view of each other and the world.”

In Denver’s art community, that vacation comes from following your passion, which is just what Salazar did for the Museo de las Americas’ Cara a Cara (face to face) exhibit opening on Thursday, June 21.

“It’s been a great opportunity to do the work I believe in, which is to promote the work on Latin American art and culture,” she says. The exhibit is part one of two celebrating the museum’s 20th anniversary.

Cara a Cara features 200 masks from the museum’s permanent collection, and it’s the first time many of these masks have been honored with a gallery placement. They’ve been collected and donated throughout the years and hail from Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil and Guatemala. In fact, some of these masks are so old that the materials used to make them are no longer in existence. It all sounds culturally sensitive and sensible, but let’s be honest: masks can be creepy. All those holes for eyes (the glass ones aren’t much better) are more than a bit unnerving. But here is where Salazar’s creative genius and passion come in to play. The exhibit is set up to honor the utility and power behind each mask. The specific organization speaks to their functionality and allows the masks to tell their stories, to convey their fearsome power.

“Most of the exhibit has a narrative,” Salazar says. “We give the masks the opportunity to tell their story, and that changes it from just a pile of masks.”

She goes on to say that masks have never lost their intention as utilitarian objects and that they have an intrinsic aesthetic as part of human history. The intention behind the exhibit is to highlight a very ancient tradition to which everyone can connect and relate.

Photo courtesy of Mel Piazza

One wall of masks depicts the Moros and Cristianos dance, one of the first used by the Spaniards to indicate that non-Christian values were wrong. It’s organized so that viewers are encouraged to confront their own duality. Another wall is lined with charming coconut faces while a third is filled with bat masks. (Bats were often considered to be gods of reproduction.)

What’s the curator’s favorite mask in the collection? The Xolot, a large, red-lipped creation that Salazar’s grandmother used to threaten her with if she misbehaved.

Overall, it’s what the mask represents that ignites Salazar’s passion.

“You see it as a very powerful piece that has this energy to connect two separate worlds.”

The exhibit is beautiful, and the masks are anything but creepy. The power that Salazar speaks of is not so much lurking spookily behind carved features, but is instead is a warm and welcomed presence.

Museo de las Americas

Exhibition Programming:

June 21, Opening Reception 6-9 p.m. ($5)

June 29, Conversation Contacto with Angel Vigil 6-8 p.m. ($4)

July 19, Wine of the Americas, 6-8 p.m. ($20)

August 9, Performance of the Mask: Burlesque 7-8 p.m. ($5)


Stephanie Richards is the art and culture editor for 303 Magazine.

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