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Devil masks offer new perspectives

‘Dancing with Devils: Latin American Masks Traditions’ explores culture, ceremony, costume

According to Michelle Wibbelsman, associate professor of Latin American Indigenous Cultures in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at The Ohio State University, the masks featured in the “Dancing with Devils: Latin American Masks Traditions” exhibit can be viewed not only as art objects but as texts that document the history, experiences and traditions of a community.

“There are meaning-making practices embedded in art-making,” Wibbelsman said. “Once we started researching that with our students, it introduced us to a variety of new methods and different theoretical perspectives we can potentially derive from this work.”

The masks, along with photographs by photojournalist Leonardo Carrizo, tell the story of Latin American festival traditions known as diabladas (devils dances), which exist in many different forms throughout Latin America. All are on display this semester at the Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise in Sullivant Hall on the Columbus campus.

Masks at the heart of the exhibition are intricate objects, typically made of papier mâché, animal horns and teeth, and other embellishments. They take many forms: animals, men, women, historical figures.

Wibbelsman and a team of nine graduate and undergraduate students from the Kawsay Ukhunchay Andean and Amazonian Indigenous Art and Cultural Artifacts Research Collection at Ohio State  along with special collections librarians curated “Dancing with Devils” as a research, teaching and community outreach resource at the Barnett Center, which was established to prepare students for successful careers in the arts and related fields.

“We delight in hosting the ‘Dancing with Devils’ exhibition in the Barnett Center Collaboratory this semester,” said Scott A. Jones, director of the center. “The multidisciplinary spirit of exhibition content – inclusive of music, dance, art, photography and narrative – in addition to rich interactions with campus, local and global communities honor an important part of our mission. We look forward to the possibility of similar partnerships with others in the near future.”

Wibbelsman is adamant that the exhibition would not be the success it is without the work of her interdisciplinary team of student collaborators.

“This isn’t a class. The students often don’t get any course credit. They don’t get any grades,” she said. “They’re not required to show up. But they keep showing up and they’ve produced more than any students in any class I’ve ever taught.”

The nine students come from differing backgrounds, she said. Some have museum and exhibition backgrounds while others are focused more on research and bibliographic work. One is a biochemistry major who took a class with Wibbelsman as an incoming freshman and fell in love with the project.

“The collection is a resource,” Wibbelsman said. “If student projects connect to it and they benefit from participating, that’s fantastic.”

“Dancing with Devils” includes work by artists from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Ecuador and features three residency artists: Fernando Endara, Italo Espín Haro and Leonardo Carrizo. Endara and Espín Haro hail from Ecuador, one of many Latin American countries that celebrates the annual festival of the diablada with music, dancing in the streets, processions and performances by masked characters.

Espín Haro is a well-known mask maker from the town of Píllaro. One of his masks is featured in the exhibition. Endara is an anthropologist at the Technological Indo-American University in Ambato, Ecuador who has published work on the Diablada Pillareña (Devils dances of the community of Píllaro) and participates in the festival regularly as a diablada dancer.

Carrizo is a Columbus-based photojournalist originally from Argentina and a multimedia journalism lecturer in the School of Communications at Ohio State. He specializes in visual storytelling and has documented the Diablada Pillareña over the course of many years in the community of Píllaro.

It was essential, Wibbelsman said, to invite the people who are from the region and most familiar with the cultures that hold this celebration, to tell its story.

“We were emphatic about bringing the artists. If you don’t activate the collection with the people who made this art, what is the collection for?”

Wibbelsman hopes that this approach to the exhibition, one which prioritizes the cultures, the artwork on display and the participation of residency artists, will have a meaningful impact on audience members.

“This is not an exhibition that goes up and comes down,” she said. “This is something that stays up for the entire semester with programming that draws people in and prompts them to ask questions.”

A physical example of this programming is a window cling installation that decorates the Barnett Center. It depicts a diablada mask and allows visitors to step into the mask. Wibbelsman said the goal is for people to consider what wearing such a mask means.

“What qualities do you need to put on a mask?” she asked. “What features would you have not noticed had you not been wearing it yourself and looking through its eyes? How does the mask invite you to look at the world from a different perspective?”

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