L’Inconnue de la Seine is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous Death Masks in popular culture. It was reportedly taken postmortem from a 16-year-old Parisian girl after she was pulled from the Seine river in the late 1880’s. The pathologist handling her body was so consumed by her unusual beauty and expression that he carefully took a plaster cast of her face. The resulting mask and accompanying story entranced the Bohemian imagination so completely that it became fashionable to have a replica of the mask displayed in one’s home. The production of Death Masks such as that of the unidentified young woman was already a common practice employed for a variety of reasons since the Middle Ages and eventually the production of Life Masks, taken while the subject was still living, became popular.
As a child I remember staring up at the cluster of Life Masks my father had hanging in his workshop, flutters of anticipation unsettling my stomach. I also remember the saturated yellow glow of the afternoon sun as I finally lay down on the ceremonial aluminum grill cover, inserting a pair of Silly Putty rimmed straws into my nostrils. Years before he had started with my older brother and then sister and at some point decided that we would all have a Life Mask made. The day my mask was made is steeped in a solemnity that accompanies a serious rite of passage. I was nervous, I knew after that afternoon after I would be part of something else. Connected to a lineage of faces, secured in place at a moment in time, like an exotic butterfly.
My father also had an extensive collection of folk art masks which he displayed more publicly across a wall in his office. Somehow I understood that these masks were of a different kind, representing a potentiality and not a reality – full of wild colors and improbable elements. These masks came to represent him in my imagination, it was as if he had each of those characters inside somewhere as if they were each a fragment of who he was, refracting light off of each of his surfaces.
I had been living ans studying in Tlaquepaque for just under a month when I decided to take advantage of a long weekend and headed to Patzcuaro – a small town on the banks of a lake in Michoacan, Mexico. This area is central to the Purépecha peoples, their famous wing-shaped fishing nets, and it is also home to some of the most respected mask makers in the country.
My door echoed metallic down the twilight drenched rooftop courtyard and I ducked my head out into the light rain of evening. I was hungry and on the prowl for some tasty street food. Mexico has some of the best fluorescent-lit, tarp-covered street food in the world, even as a vegetarian I was always able to eat really well. Something that many people don’t understand about Mexican food is that nearly every fat dripping protein packed plate they identify as ‘Mexican’ was likely non-existent before the Spaniards invaded. Indigenous cuisine originally focused on local fruits, vegetables, herbs and peppers with an occasional fish, Guajolote (wild turkey) or Xoloscuintle (hairless dog) included for special meals depending on the region.
The center of Patzcuaro was arranged around a shady fountain-centric plaza and during the day it was lined with vendors tucked into towering piles of T-shirts, textiles, generic jewelry and replicas of all kinds. But the dusk fades and the vendors pack up their wares into wheelbarrows and small vans – and the food market takes over. As soon as the dark settles completely across the plaza locals find themselves calling out, alongside the tourists, to the masters of the night kitchen. It was in Patzcuaro that I first tried Ponche, hot fruit tea and stewed fruits – a hearty blend of flavors infused with the glow of the street light filtering through a cobalt plastic sky – perfectly complimenting the roasted root vegetables and tortillas I had ordered.
The next morning descending into the plaza from my rooftop quarters I spent the morning at the nearby crafts museum. Dreamily, I walked along the dusty hallways avoiding vendors until I entered a large open room which had almost entirely been taken over by an enormous wooden machine. The only other person in the room at the time, I approached the man sitting at the helm, busy moving an overwhelming number of wooden levers and pulleys. In no hurry, he stopped the machine to explain that it was in fact a hundred year old loom and after an hour of careful discussion, I found myself behind the loom trying my hands – and feet – at the complicated craft.
Later that morning, scattering the pigeons, I sat down on a bench in the plaza. A few minutes later an old woman came over and sat down directly next to me. Finding it a little odd, as there were a number of free benches, I turned to greet her. She had indeed been looking for a conversation with me and we enjoyed watching the business of the plaza pass by while we chatted casually. Not long into our time together she began telling me about a rodeo that would be taking place outside of the city that day. Nothing planned, I inquired about further details and within the hour I was stuffed into one of the vans serving as public transport to the outlying cities, repeating to my self for several minutes the unusual name of my ‘stop’.
I needn’t have worried as it turned out nearly every one of my fellow passengers were also going to the rodeo and we unloaded from the van, all of us stretching out our legs and regaining composure. It was more adventure than I had been prepared for, the ‘town’ I had arrived at appeared to offer very little in the way of ATMs, in fact it was not a town of any normal description. There were no streets and the river of people flooding in off the highway all channeled down a small dirt path and towards a large pit dug from the hillside. Quickly I reviewed the contents of my pockets in my mind and realized I would need to use my few pesos very wisely.
After choosing an area that appeared to have a decent view of the rodeo grounds below and a lack of rowdy drunken men, I scrambled up the dirt incline and with my heels dug securely into the ground, I squatted down to take it all in…