The faces of Mexico are elegant and haunting.
And they’re crying and laughing up and down the walls of the Cheney Cowles Museum.
More than 400 Mexican masks will be featured in the museum’s latest cultural exhibition, “Las Caras de Mexico: Pasado y Presente” or, “The Faces of Mexico: Past and Present.”
Cheney Cowles inherited the artwork from the defunct Museum of Native American Cultures. The exhibit, opening Friday and continuing through June 23, is the first showing of the complete collection since MONAC shut its doors in 1991.
The masks originate from several Mexican states and date from the early 1900s to the 1960s. They reflect various customs and rituals of Mexican natives, including religion and dance, said Antonio Sanchez, an Olympia-based consultant with museums on Hispanic art and heritage.
Sanchez, who will give a lecture at the museum next month, said Spokane residents are lucky that the artwork is so accessible. The exhibit is one of the largest collections of masks on the West Coast, Sanchez said.
“They’re important as a historical mirror into the past and a look at the indigenous cultures as they’re practiced today,” Sanchez said.
The masks are most commonly used for special events such as fiestas and feasts to celebrate Christian saints. They represent a melding of pre-Columbian, Mexican tradition and Spanish influences, particularly religious tenets.
“They’re such an excellent example of what happens when cultures come together,” Sanchez said. “You have a Christian holiday celebrated in a very (Mexican-) Indian way.”
The art continues to be used in Mexican cultural celebrations today. Although many people use them as decorations, they also have entertainment value, Sanchez said.
During festivals and other community gatherings, Mexican villagers used the masks to diffuse tensions by mocking other townspeople, like the richest guy or the town gossip, Sanchez said.
The exhibit includes contemporary masks from Ruben Trejo, a Mexican-American artist and instructor at Eastern Washington University.
To Trejo, the masks transcend boundaries of culture and speak to a history of adversity for people with Mexican roots.
Some of the faces are reflections of his family’s past. In particular, in some of his pieces Trejo makes references to his parents, who emigrated from Mexico and struggled as migrant workers in the early 1900s. Although Trejo tries to add humor to his faces, they also depict the struggle of Mexican immigrants.
Trejo sees his parents - the beliefs they had and the way they lived - in the expressions of joy and pain on the farcical faces.
Trejo uses specific materials in his work to bridge the past with the present. Most of the MONAC masks are made of wood, but Trejo prefers other materials such as aluminum.
“Aluminum is a modern material,” he said. “Instead of going out and carving wood the traditional way, I wanted to do something with metal to reflect the area.”
Curator Lynn Pankonin said the exhibit will help the local Hispanic community reconnect with its roots.
“Even though you leave a country for whatever reason, that country is still in you, in your blood,” Pankonin said.
It’s also written in the faces.
Many of the masks are surreal images of animals, which Sanchez said are an integral part of Mexican culture. The power of nature is inspiration for most of the pieces, he said.
Museum staff members say they hope the display will bring greater visibility to Spokane County’s Hispanic community, which numbers more than 8,000.
“We’d like this museum to be recognized as a place that represents who all of us are, not just bits and pieces of us,” said Cheney Cowles director Glenn Mason. “Sooner or later, we’ll see ourselves in the museum.”
The growing Chicano community makes up a part of the increasing diversity in the Spokane area. The museum and other businesses need to recognize and represent these communities, Mason said.
The contorted and colorful faces may seem grotesque to some visitors, but Sanchez hopes people will look beyond the features and see the people who created the masks.
“It’s so much more than art,” Sanchez said. “It’s really a people’s hope and faith in many things.”
Visitors also can get a taste of local Chicano history as they stroll through “Mexicanos in Spokane County: An Historical Photographic Essay.” This exhibit is curated by Carlos Maldonado, director of the Chicano Education Program at Eastern Washington University.