Huichol Mexican Mask

by Kassandra Ledesma, AD&A Museum Intern

"Seeing this piece in a museum collection as a work of art made me excited because I finally saw myself represented in a museum, something I have rarely experienced." 
Mexican, Huichol People, Huichol Mexican Mask, ca. 1930. Beads on carved wood, 9-6/8 x 8-3/8 x 5-6/8 in (22 x 18 x 14.5 cm). overall. Estate of Frances Garvin and Keith Julius Puccinelli, 2018.001.003. Art, Design & Architecture Museum; UC Santa Barbara. (Click image for larger view.)

Looking at this Huichol Mexican mask, what caught my eye instantly was the vibrant colors and unique shape of the piece. Seeing this piece in a museum collection as a work of art made me excited because I finally saw myself represented in a museum, something I have rarely experienced. I was anxious to see it in person and curious to see what I could learn about the culture from observing this piece.

The Huichol people were located in various areas of Mexico, specifically in parts of Jalisco, Eastern Nayarit, Southern Zacatecas, and Durango. Made by an unknown Huichol artist, the mask presented here exudes extreme detail and vibrant colors. From my study of the mask’s design and details, I present a few notable points about Huichol art and culture through observation of the material, construction, and design.

The materials used to construct the mask are carved wood and colored plastic beads. The technique used for the construction of the mask is both subtractive, seen through the removal of wood, and additive, from the addition of plastic beads for the designs. 

The facial composition of the mask leans more toward a male-looking visage, with protruding cheeks, a nose, lips, and a mustache. Rather than just illustrating these facial features directly on the mask, the artist decided to instead carve these features, making them pop out from the base, and later emphasizing them using the beads. It is unknown if the purpose of the mask is to be worn or used as decoration, but the artist carved two almost oblong-shaped holes on the mask where the eyes of the wearer would be. By doing so, the person wearing the mask would be able to see past the wood, effectively making the art object function as a mask. An interesting thing to note is that when looking at the mask from the front, the holes for the eyes are not visible. This is successfully done by carving the holes at a slight angle. 

Covered in intricate designs, this mask showcases the Huichol art and craftsmanship. Decorated with many beads, the artist covered the entirety of the mask, leaving no wood exposed. Held together by what appears to be beeswax, each colored bead is placed onto the mask to form a specific image, both geometric and natural. The different colored beads placed side-by-side transform into animal, insect, and flower shapes. Alternating the colors brown and pink, the artist creates the illusion of textured hair in the mustache. These colors and the pattern are replicated in the location of where the eyebrows would be, giving the idea that this specific pattern used is supposed to be hair. The artist also forms eyelids using gray and light blue, and white and brown for eyes. With close observation, I noticed that each bead is placed in a uniform position, facing up in the same direction. Seeing this, there is no doubt that it was a very taxing and intricate process to complete and emphasizes the extensive work put into the construction of this mask. 

Art from Huichol People, courtesy of Casa Dolores, Santa Barbara. (Click image for larger view.)

This style and process of art are common in the Huichol culture. At the Casa Dolores museum located in downtown Santa Barbara, there is a vast collection of Mexican folk art. The museum presents a small number of Huichol art pieces that display the same style and technique used in the Huichol Mexican mask. This shows that the Huichol culture had a uniform and extremely detailed process of creating art.

Overall there is no doubt that the Huichol Mexican mask is an incredible piece to be seen. There is so much to find hidden throughout the mask because of its extreme details and beautiful colors. Its vibrant colors and unique concept allow people to acknowledge the amount of time and work the artist put into its creation. This mask is perfect for people to understand and find value in the fine craftsmanship of Huichol art. 

This blog post was written by Art, Design & Architecture Museum Intern Kassandra Ledesma, who interned with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Education Department. All photographs by author. Click to learn more about the AD&A Museum Internship Program:

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