August 30, 2013

Life and Death in a Zapotec Mask

My series of ten small mosaics completed, I’ve turned once again to the art of making detailed drawings. The complete collection of small mosaics is posted on my web site: . To avoid redundancy, I’ve changed the expository remarks on the mosaics that have already been featured on this blog, adding some educational details.

My newly completed drawing is of Pre-Columbian Artifacts that I’ve studied in various museums - a Zapotec mask and some Olmec figures. The bird head and the squatting monkey-like figure below that are from my imagination albeit influenced by previously observed Chinese antiquities. The bird head is reminiscent of ancient Chinese jades and the squatting figure is similar to the encapsulated animal and plant forms found in Han dynasty bronzes.

The most powerful form in the composition is the Zapotec mask. One could say by way of comparison with western art that it is the Pre-Columbian equivalent of a vanitas figure, although this would not be an entirely apt analogy. The vanitas symbol in western art generally consisted of a complete skull or skeleton included in the picture to remind us of the ephemeral nature of life and hence the folly of clinging to the vanities of life that will change and expire. In this respect the vanitas is more didactic in nature than the spiritual dimensions of the Zapotec mask. In the mask death is not a finality but a continuity with and part of existence. These masks are usually thus depicted as devided equally between a formed face and a face transmuted into the realm of the “fleshless,” as the afterlife was called. There is a sense of exchange between the two spheres - the land of the dead and the living coexisting and even co-mingling. Death in the Zapotec mask is about transformation rather than cessation.

The scrolling designs in the background of the drawing are gleaned from my studies of such forms in Pre-Columbian art, particularly Mayan art. They may be more than just decorative. These winding pathways are believed by some to indicate sound and movement. To me they feel like meandering pathways such as those found in Chinese gardens - winding to coincide with the life force of “qi.”

The background undulations took some time to create as I have been inserting tiny systems of dots and lines along the edges and interiors to underscore the concept of something living and singing within the forms. A lot of life for a death mask.

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