“PUTTING A FACE ON THE VIRUS” PROJECT IN MEXICO
National School of Anthropology and History – Mexico
We have all faced difficult times recently, but we have all put our creativity and resilience to the test too. This is the case of many Mexican artisans that, despite the technological inequalities and the Wi-Fi signal failures in many communities, created a new logic for promoting their work, and to keep creating and selling their handicrafts. Facebook was the place where we established contact with many of those artisans around the country with the intention to ask them to design a mask than embodied the face of the virus SARS-CoV-2, responsible of the COVID-19 sickness.
Carlos Dávila and I, both ethnologists and professors, coordinate the project entitled “Putting a face on the virus”. On April 2020 we contacted the artisans with the request of designing a handicraft that answered a simple question: How do you see the virus? The results were amazing considering that, what really interested us was to register the creative process and to understand the meanings and symbolic codes involved in each mask. For instance, one of the artisans took many months to finish the mask because he was having trouble dreaming about her. He usually dreams with the masks he creates, but in this case, the task was taking too long.
At the end of 2020, our collaborative project had reached a new level, now with an ethnographic collection related to the virus. We classified each mask and created a digital archive with photographs and information, but we also started a long process of ethnological research. What is a mask? These objects are expressions of cultural diversity that trigger, during carnivals or specific rituals, laughter, fear, anger or solemnity. Masks are also artifacts that embody different meanings according with their cultural context and evoke places and times that maybe won´t fit with our empirical perception, but that embody human and non human beings that exist around us (Neurath & Questa, 2018).
According to the latter, we saw how the 12 masks describe the tension between tradition and modern, as well as the relation between indigenous cosmologies and political realities, ecological concerns, and international catastrophes. The “Covid Pig”, for starting, shows the connections of the virus with the consumption of pork, an animal considered responsible of many foreign diseases. The same happens with the “Mestizo Man” and “The Mask of Power” that embody the virus as a white man.
On the other hand, the “Devil of Teloloapan”, the “Green Devil” and the “Afro Covid” are masks manufactured by afro mestizo artisans that introduce the virus as a demonic figure. These masks have horsehair, goat horns or a skull, and a pattern that shows the COVID-19 cells sprouting from the devils face. Finally, we have masks that give the virus a face of an animal: jaguar, tiger or bull; a skull or an ancient virus known as “Cocoliztli”, responsible of many sicknesses that arrived in Mexican territory from the hands of the Spanish conquerors in the 16th and 17th centuries.
This project is still in an initial stage. Masks have shown the importance of thinking in an anthropological fashion and to understand the many ways of living with the virus. It has been quite a journey to see how in some communities people say that the virus will only attack the white urban people, or the way in which traditional rituals have changed, planting COVID seeds or performing COVID dances and songs. In August 2021 we will open an academic seminar about art and COVID-19 with our colleagues and students from the National School of Anthropology and History. We want also to present an exhibition in a local museum on 2022, and to take back the masks to their places of provenance, because carnivals and rituals will start again and these masks need to be danced and to take their agency from their communities.
Neurath, Johannes & Questa, Alessandro; 2018. “Rostros de otros mundos”, Artes de México. 128:9-19.