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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Art history prof. to speak on symbolism in Mexican masks

    It only takes one course in art history to understand that from an educational standpoint, art is not just art. Whether it is sculpture or painting, there is often historical and cultural context that accompanies a piece. This spring, the Arizona State Museum is advancing that point by offering a lecture series to go along with its latest exhibit, “”Masks of Mexico: Santos, Diablos, y Mas.””

    Janet Brody Esser, a retired Latin American art history professor from San Diego State University, will be the first lecturer of the series to speak about Mexican mask performance art, which she has experienced at great length first hand.

    It all started when Esser, who was planning on continuing her education in pre-European conquest, took a trip to Uruapan in Michoacǭn, Mexico to research with a mask-maker. It abruptly changed her educational life.

    “”In my headlights I picked up these masqueraders, and I had never seen anything like them. They looked like angels or from a different planet. They had the sweetest faces I’d ever seen,”” Esser said. “”Right then and there I knew that’s what I was going to get my doctorate in.””

    Esser spent that entire summer in Mexico doing research and continued to travel back over the border at every opportunity. She eventually received a grant to spend an entire year there to further her study.

    Her pursuit of Mexican mask performance art put Esser on the map for doing something uniquely different from the rest of her colleagues.

    “”This just appealed to me a lot more,”” Esser said. “”No other art historian was doing this in the Americas.””

    In her lecture, titled “”The Mirrored Mask: Representations of the ‘Other’ in Mexican Mask Drama,”” Esser will speak on the culture of the indigenous people of Mexico and the importance of their mask-making traditions.

    “”The thing that it is the most important that they understand is that there is intelligence behind these masks and they are not used by quote unquote primitive people. Even though they are poor by our standards they are rich in culture,”” Esser said. “”I think we who live in a First World country, we have a tendency to look down upon rural people. Whether we admit to it or not, we look down on them and patronize them.””

    Esser, a city native, found even she was guilty of these cultural misconceptions. In fact, Esser grew up in the United States’ most well known spot for theater, New York, where she said she attended many Broadway performances. However, her experience of mask performance surpassed her own standards.

    “”Never had I seen anything like these mask performances. These things were filled with creativity and humor and sophistication,”” Esser said. “”It just goes to show you don’t have to live in New York to experience something with meaning.””

    Esser will be bringing five masks from her large personal collection to share. Although she’s excited to share, Esser does not encourage going out and buying a replica at your local gift shop.

    “”There is such a lack of respect with fake masks. They are things that are concocted to people who don’t know any better,”” Esser said.

    Esser incorporated a lot of her knowledge on the study of Mexican culture and masks to the curriculum of the art history program at San Diego State University, where she was a professor and the Associate Director of the Latin American

    Studies Program. Although she retired in 2002, she is still active in her study by serving as the chair of Latin American arts at the San Diego Museum of Art. Esser said her success can be attributed to those she studied, however.

    “”I’m just very, very grateful for the people in the villages and barrios that have been my friends,”” Esser said. “”I feel very privileged to get to do what most people don’t get to do.””

    Esser’s lecture will take place at 7 p.m. tonight in the Center for English as a Second Language, 1100 E. James E. Rogers Way. Other lectures in the series will be held March 9 and April 7. Contact the Arizona State Museum for more information. All lectures are free of charge.

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