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Preserving Mexico's folk art masks

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Sara Miller Llana

(Read caption) Bill LeVasseur collects ritual masks of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. 'Some of the best compliments I get are from Mexicans,' he says. ' "Thank you for preserving this," they say. "This is part of our culture that we can't lose." '

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Bill LeVasseur never set out to become an ethnographer. Or a historian, anthropologist, migration specialist, or scholar of syncretism for that matter. He was an American advertising executive living in Mexico City who simply liked Mexican folk art.

But in the past two decades he has become all of those things, of sorts at least, amassing a collection of hundreds of Mexican masks from remote villages across the country that today he hangs on the walls of his museum in San Miguel de Allende. In doing so, he has singlehandedly preserved a piece of Mexican culture that few realize is still thriving today.

“Some of the best compliments I get are from Mexicans,” he says. “ 'Thank you for preserving this,' they say. 'This is part of our culture that we can't lose.' "

Masks have a crucial place in Mexican society, a pre-Hispanic custom that evolved but continued after conquest by the Spanish. Today, particularly in the thousands of tiny towns across the country, artisans still carve them for use in ceremonial dances to celebrate feast days and patron saints, most of it fusing elements of indigenous customs with Roman Catholic narrative.

Mr. LeVasseur stumbled upon masks innocently enough, as an expat on a stint abroad in Mexico City. A colleague gave him one as a present, piquing his curiosity. He started reading. He began going to art fairs to look for new renderings. Then he started traveling the switchbacks across the country.

“I felt like I was looking through a keyhole back 400 years in time,” he says of his first experiences watching dancers in costume marching down the streets of dusty Mexican towns.

Today his collection, The Other Face of Mexico, spans the spectrum: representations of saints and devils, adorned with tigers and snakes, carved from mahogany or avocado wood. His one requirement: that they have previously been used in a dance or ritual, so that they are a living piece of history, not simply a piece of art.

LeVasseur has retired from his job and moved permanently to San Miguel de Allende, where he and his wife, in addition to the museum, run a bed-and-breakfast. But he still travels extensively, adding to his collection each year.


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