Jesusa Rodriguez: Interview on the use of MasksOn Friday July 30th we all participated in an action directed by Jesusa Rodriguez. After workshops, and discussion, and mask-making, Jesusa and Mariana’s vision (with lots of input from the group) came to life. A crowd of people wearing brightly colored skull masks wrapped in a huge red cloth that covered the width of the streets walked along the main streets of San Cristobal. At the center of the procession there was the body of a young naked woman covered in flowers is carried on a wood plank. The procession was somber and silent except for those handing out flowers and explaining the purpose of our act: to speak out against Matanzas in Mexico, against the murder and abduction of women in Mexico, and more broadly the world over. I met with Jesusa to discuss why we had used masks, and why she uses masks in her performance art in general. What follows is a brief summary of that conversation.
Masks are useful because if you stop seeing someone’s face you start to see the whole person. Sometimes, we are trapped by faces. The mask makes you underline the whole expression of someone’s body instead of focusing exclusively on the face. It’s an immediate bridge with a body. It may seem counter intuitive but people are more comfortable approaching a mask than approaching a stranger. The skull masks were used for two main purposes. The first is that the topic that our action was death, the murder of young people, the murder of women, murders committed by the state or with it’s sanction, in Mexico and many other countries. Violence has entrenched itself so deeply in our societies that the deaths of thousands become irrelevant. In the past three years there have been over 28,000 murders in Mexico. It should be a scandal but people become accustomed to it. Their deaths become irrelevant, and that is how it is in many other countries. So the skull masks served to highlight that closeness. The second reason we used masks is because they have an equalizing force. Without the masks we would have felt too much like outsiders trying to make a protest about problems in a country not our own, a very problematic endeavor indeed. But somehow the masks let us in; more than conceal our identity, they referenced back to our shared humanity and experience of life and death. There is an enormous closeness between life and death. Behind each face there is a skull. The dividing line is very thin and the skull mask helps the spectator see that. It highlights a reality that we all know but try to ignore, the fragility of life. Crowds gathered around us with great curiosity and many people accepted flowers and returned them to Mariana’s body when we asked them to do so in a show of solidarity with the motive of our action. Some asked whether Mariana was truly dead, showing that the performance effectively transmitted the affect of a funeral procession. In Mariana’s body we contained all of our grief and all of our loss, and we stretched her body across the streets of San Cristobal with our large bright-blood-red cloth, holding her up for everyone to see. Undoubtedly, the effectiveness of the performance relied heavily on the masks we used. I will stop here so I make sure not to go over on time, but in the text I will put up online there is a more extensive discussion of how Jesusa relates masks to her own work and how she conceives of her use of pre-Colombian masks as well as other cultural traditions that she incorporates into her work. How are we on time? Do we have time to watch a brief video of Jesusa describing how to wear a mask? If not I invite you to check out our module because it’s a wonderful short video of Jesusa being her charming self.