Saturday, April 4, 2015

Michoacán Masks

I am not a mask collector, but some of my best friends are, namely my husband Doug. I'll never forget  searching the Oaxaca main market with him many years ago, and after what seemed like hours of a wild goose chase, we turned a corner and miraculously came upon some amazing treasures-- old masks( men with big beards and some devils) from Guerrero--that were the first to adorn our walls. Doug kept his cool and bargained hard with the woman (who clearly was not the artisan but a vendor of random stuff in her stall) and after we had given her all of our pesos, we dug deep into our pockets to offer some dollars we'd been saving for an emergency. To Doug, this was obviously an emergency. I remember the joy Doug felt when we carried off those pieces. He was thinking how cool he was and that he had really scored. I on the other hand was thinking: How will we get these things home? Where the hell will we put them? How much money did we just spend? And finally-- did I marry a crazy man, because-- who does this??
Since then, that mask obsession has led to a few more purchases for our home, and has given me a bit of insight into some of my Mexico By Hand customers. Michoacán masks are completely different from other Mexican masks, and they are largely unknown by folks who have never been there. There are a few different styles of masks from different villages, e.g. Ocumicho, Sevina, and Uruapan, to name a few, but for now, I'm going to talk about the masks from Tocuaro, a small village on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro. I remember on my first trip to the state, I didn't much care for them. Frankly, they're pretty scary-- brightly painted devils with red tongues sticking out and lots of snakes and bats-- creepy stuff like that. I certainly wasn't going to buy any, even to sell to my customers. And I doubted they would want them either. But then I met Felipe. It was April, in  2005 or maybe 2006, and I flew to Michoacán by myself for the annual Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) crafts market and concurso (competition) in Uruapan. Doug and I had spent the previous year producing a documentary of the event for the Casa de las Artesanias and I was so excited to be back. But this time I was going as Mexico By Hand, and my purpose was to buy! I had gotten up very early--too excited to sleep and I wanted to shop early to get the best stuff. Turns out this was Mexico, where vendors don't show up bright and early, which is something I still forget so many years later. So realizing I had plenty of time, I ducked into a little hole in the wall breakfast place nearby and ordered some coffee and huevos a la Mexicana.
 Sitting at the counter a few stools away from me was Felipe Horta, a maskmaker from Tocuaro. I knew his name because his uncle was the famous Juan Horta, considered to be the best in the village. Felipe had a booth there in the market and of course was also hoping to win a prize for an elaborate dance mask and cape he entered for the concurso. We had a nice chat, and he let me know that he'd be interested in exhibiting in the U.S. if I could arrange something. To my surprise he told me that he has a visa and has been to San Francisco to show his work. I promised to stop by his booth and we shared contact information, and then he insisted on paying for my breakfast. A few years later I returned the favor when Mexico By Hand applied and was accepted to exhibit at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market and we sponsored Felipe as the guest artist in our booth. We spent 5 days together, and have been friends ever since.
Felipe Horta in his workshop

Felipe is very talented. He also has a big personality, which means he's not shy and loves to joke around, something that makes him a good salesman as well. So when Felipe tries to sell me something, I have a very hard time saying "no", in either language. By the way, it's the same word in English and Spanish--the word should be easy to master. Like a good Mexican, Felipe enjoys bargaining--hard. He is one of the few artisans with whom I do that, because we are friends, and I don't have to worry about offending him. Plus, he always starts it. So, as a result, over the years I have purchased masks that I initially didn't want to buy, but was convinced to do so. I have sold some of them, and others are currently part of our home collection-- until we sell them. So who are the folks who buy these devil masks? Well, first they are people with some money to spend on art, because Felipe's masks are not cheap. And though I have seen an equal number of men and women who show interest, I have to say that my last few purchases have been to middle-age women, of various backgrounds. Go figure. One woman of Armenian descent has bought two, and then there was a customer who bought one a couple of years ago who I was sure when she approached our booth was, for lack of a better or more PC word, a "bag lady". Obviously yanking my chain when she asked the price, this woman didn't even blink as she pulled out her credit card. Surprise…a strange person with a foreign accent who collects masks and has money to spend!  Hallelujah!
El Grandote
This year we were again exhibiting at that show, and we brought Felipe's masks, which happily got a lot of attention. Up walked this woman who looked very familiar, and got down to business right away. "How much for those masks?" she asked pointing to our medium size devil masks. After I answered her, she then pointed to the one I call "El Grandote"-- the big ass one. This is the giant mask that Doug convinced me to buy from Felipe two and a half years ago, and was getting to be part of the family, not because we couldn't part with it, but because we feared it was like a young adult who would never be able to leave home. It not only had a devil, but a skeleton and a scorpion too. Super creepy…and it was expensive. That was the piece I really, really wanted to sell that day, and if we did sell it, we could call the show a success. Hallelujah! Now what are we going to do with that bare wall? I'm missing El Grandote already. Felipe, amigo, how much for that big mask??
Skull w/angel

La Dualidad (Duality)

Felipe Horta's masks can be purchased at his workshop in Tocuaro, Michoacán and also are available in the U.S. through Mexico By Hand.
For more information, contact us at: or (510) 526-6395.

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