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Date: c. 1350-1521
Medium:Wood, turquoise, shell, lignite and resin
Geographic Location: Mexico
Dimensions: Overall: 7 11/16 x 6 5/16 x 3 5/8 in. (19.53 x 16.04 x 9.21 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, The Roberta Coke Camp Fund
Object Number: 1979.2
Covered in a mosaic of tiny turquoise tiles, this Aztec mask possibly represents the rain god Tlaloc. The goggle-like concentric circles around the eyes are often an indicator of Tlaloc. Turquoise, which does not occur naturally in Mesoamerica, was valued for its color and rarity. The Aztecs related the color turquoise with the daytime sky, as well as with water. Both elements are associated with the god Tlaloc.
Mosaic masks such as this one may have been created by the Mixtec people as tribute to Aztec authorities. The masks may have been placed on images of deities as ritual regalia during festivals or worn by god impersonators. Masks were also placed on the wrapped bodies of deceased rulers before cremation.
Visual characteristics of the rain god include goggle-like circles around the eyes, prominent teeth, serpent imagery, and the color blue. Circles around eyes may suggest standing pools of water or ripples caused by falling raindrops. Teeth, often those of a jaguar, would have looked somewhat like flowing streams of water. The physical characteristics of serpents were related to rain in Mesoamerican cultures. Their long, twisting anatomies are similar in shape to lightning, which was believed to split the clouds to release rain (Flannery and Marcus 1983:38). A serpent’s body also looks similar to channels of water or long, curving “pipes.” Additionally, representations of Tlaloc are often blue to reference the sky and its reflection in the water of lakes and oceans.
This mask was created with small pieces of turquoise. Aztecs related the color turquoise with the daytime sky, as well as with water. Both elements are associated with the god Tlaloc.
Mixtec craftsmen were widely recognized for their superb work in turquoise mosaic and in gold. They also produced pictorial manuscripts—or folding deerskin books—and elaborately painted ceramics. In the 15th century, when the contemporary Aztec people began to expand their empire outward from Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico, they brought the Mixtec area under their control. To maintain peace, the Mixtec people paid tribute to the Aztecs, in the form of fine textiles, collars of greenstone beads, bunches of green feathers, bags of prized red dye (cochineal), and quantities of gold dust (Townsend 1993:90). Objects such as this mask may have been a tribute to the Aztecs.
We know the Mixtec people by names that come from Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Aztecs called the Mixtec area Mixtlan, “place of clouds,” and the people became known as “cloud people” (Flannery and Marcus 1983:xxi). The Mixtecs called themselves ñuu-dzavui, “people of rain” or “people of the rain deity.”
1. Compare and contrast Mask, possibly of Tlaloc with Head of the rain god Tlaloc. How are these representations of the same deity similar and different?
2. Tlaloc is the Aztec god of rain. Create a list of all the reasons rain might have been important to the Aztecs. In what ways is rain important to you?
3. The Aztecs associated the color of turquoise with the daytime sky and water. What other things in nature can you associate with the color turquoise? What about the color magenta? Chartreuse? Ochre? (You may need to research these colors.)
4. Turquoise was highly valued in ancient Mesoamerica. What goods or products are highly valued today? What visual qualities of these products might contribute to their high value?
1. Compare and contrast Mask, possibly of Tlaloc with the Helmet mask (mukenga). How are these masks visually similar and different? What is similar and different about how each of these cultures use masks?
2. Other Mesoamerican and non-Mesoamerican cultures, such as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, worshipped deities of rain. Research other examples of rain gods and present your findings to your class. What do all of these deities have in common? Why might various cultures have gods dedicated to rain?
3. The stones on this mask were hand-polished over several days before being attached to the mask. Explore the process of polishing with sandpaper. First, describe the sandpaper’s texture. Then, rub two pieces of sandpaper together for one minute. Does the sandpaper feel any different? How is it different? (The sandpaper should feel slightly smoother.) Experiment with polishing other materials, such as wood or rock, and consider the making of this mask.
4. The turquoise-blue color of this mask as well as the goggle-like circles around the eye holes are thought to refer to water and pools of water. Think of a natural phenomenon, such as rain, wind, hail, etc. Design a mask to represent that phenomenon. How will your mask visually represent that natural phenomenon?
5. Choose a natural phenomenon or natural disaster, such as rain, wind, hail, tornadoes, tsunamis, etc. to represent you. How is the phenomenon similar to you? In what ways can you represent yourself as an element in nature?
|Learn about the Mixtec culture.|
Coe, Michael, Dean Snow, and Elizabeth Benson. Atlas of Ancient America. New York and Oxford: Facts On File Publications, 1986.
Evans, Susan Toby, and David L. Webster. Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia. London: Taylor & Francis US, 2001.
Fields, Virginia M., John M. D. Pohl, and Victoria I. Lyall. Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico. New York: Scala Publishers, 2012.
Miller, Mary, and Karl Taube. The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1993.
Phillips, Charles, and David M. Jones. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Aztec and Maya: The Definitive Chronicle of the Ancient Peoples of Mexico and Central America - Including the Aztec, Maya, Olmec, Mixtec, Toltec and Zapotec. Dayton, OH: Lorenz, 2007.
Pitman, Bonnie, ed. Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2012.
Books for Students:
Enciso, Jorge. Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico. New York: Dover Publications, 1953.
Enciso, Jorge. Design Motifs from Pre-Columbian Mexico. New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Harper, Jo. Birth of the Fifth Sun: And Other Mesoamerican Tales. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2008.
Peppas, Lynn. Life in Ancient Mesoamerica. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 2004.
Explore significant events in Mexico from 8000 B.C. to the present day.
Learn about the Aztecs and their history, empire, and invasion by Europeans.
This website, stewarded by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provides scholarly research on Mesoamerica.
This teaching guide offers contextual information about Mexican works of art in the Smithsonian collection.
Explore present-day archaeological discoveries.
Many works of art seen in museums have a religious or ceremonial significance that may not be readily apparent or easily understood. Because many of the beliefs, values, and traditions associated with these objects are complex or unfamiliar, teaching about these objects can be challenging. In a diverse and global world, it is important to maintain a high level of cultural sensitivity in the classroom and to promote cultural literacy. Presented here are several guidelines for teaching about the beliefs, values, and traditions related to these works of art in a sensitive and respectful manner.
- Consider the Museum Setting
Remember that these objects were not originally intended to be displayed in museums and many served utilitarian as well as aesthetic functions. Some objects were never meant to be preserved and others were only supposed to be seen by a small, elite group within the source culture. These issues make it all the more important for educators to provide relevant contextual information surrounding these objects. Older students can consider the ethical implications of the placement of these objects in museums, from the colonial expansions that encouraged their acquisition to the educational benefits of publicly accessible art.
- Provide Context and Narrative
When discussing works that carry a religious or ceremonial significance, it is important to consider the original context in which the object would have been used. Where appropriate, emphasize that many of the ceremonies and religions studied are living traditions that are still practiced today. Additionally, providing a narrative through contextual storytelling engages students in learning about a culture or religion different from their own in a nonthreatening way.
Equally important to context is geography. Emphasize the diversity of the continents and encourage students to remember that Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas are made up of many countries and cultures. A great starting point is to locate where students live on a world map and then locate the country or region from which the artwork comes.
- Use Inclusive Language
Use language that is inclusive, and avoid indicating your own cultural or religious biases. By remaining neutral, all backgrounds can be respected and no one treated like an outsider. Avoid setting up a dichotomy of “us” and “them” when discussing these cultures and arbitrary categories such as “western” and “non-western.” Instead, be specific, and categorize the objects by country or religion. Specificity steers students away from the trap of oversimplifying diverse continents such as Asia or Africa into homogenous regions that serve as the “other” of the “western” world.
- Carefully Select Vocabulary
When discussing works of art with cultural and religious significance, avoid terms that carry a derogatory tone or that have typically been used to disparagingly describe works of art from other cultures. Avoiding loaded terms will discourage a value hierarchy between cultures and encourage both unbiased accuracy and sensitivity. Examples include: idol, myth, tribe, artifact, fetish, primitive, non-western, etc. This list is in no way exhaustive or without exception, and it is important to select words carefully when referring to various cultures or religions.
Insensitive vocabulary is sometimes compounded by the fact that there may not be English equivalents for the names of religions, belief systems, or peoples from other cultures (i.e. many of the belief systems practiced by various peoples throughout Africa).
- Avoid Decontextualizing Activities
Remember that religious and ceremonial objects have a very specific purpose and their own cultural context. Avoid the inclination to design open-ended, “make your own” exercises where the objects are directly appropriated and removed from their context. (i.e. make your own Hindu god or African spirit) Keep in mind how certain activities could be viewed as disrespectful or even blasphemous by peoples from the culture being studied.
- Find Common Connections
Humans throughout time and all over the world share a fundamental unity of experiences that reflect common concerns, instincts, and desires. We all seek to understand the world and our place within it. Universal themes and commonalities may be found among diverse peoples. Invite students to search for meaningful connections between the culture studied and his/her own. While honoring a common human experience, also encourage students to embrace particular nuances and maintain the integrity of differences of each culture or religion. Understanding both similarities and differences between cultures allows students to be more compassionate, culturally sensitive, and literate.
- Consider the Study of Cultures
In the last century, scholarship regarding Asian and African cultures and their associated religions and practices has expanded immensely. Information that was once scarce or obscure is now more accessible than ever and can provide greater understandings about the art and culture of these peoples. European and American art making and record keeping mostly emphasize the individual artist or artistic movement. This may differ from standards in African and Asian cultures. Consider the role art plays in various cultures, why makers may or may not be identified, how record keeping varies, and why some cultures emphasize certain aspects of objects and their history over others.
Breuilly, Elizabeth, and Joanne O’Brien, Martin Palmer, Martin E. Marty. Religions of the World: The Illustrated Guide to Origins, Beliefs, Traditions, and Festivals. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Mbiti, John. African Religion and Philosophy (African Writers), 2nd sub edition. Hinemann, 1992.
Nash, Robert. Teaching Adolescents Religious Literacy in a Post-9/11 World. Information Age Publishing, 2009.
Prothero, Stephen. God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter. Harper One, 2010.
Prothero, Stephen. Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-- and Doesn’t. San Francisco: Harper, 2007.
Ray, Benjamin. African Religions: Symbol, Ritual, and Community, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979.