Facial expressions

JOSH STEPHENSON / Durango Herald

Durango Arts Center exhibits director Mary Puller describes the origin and history of some of the masks on display to Petra Hinke of Durango. The masks in the foreground are from the Baining Tribal Fire Dance of East Britain, Papua, New Guinea, the larger of which represents clan spirits important for protection and healing. Following the coming-of-age ceremony, the masks are abandoned in the forest surrounding the village. On April 12, Leslie Martin will give a presentation that includes video footage of the Baining Fire Dance.

By Ted Holteen Herald staff writer

T here’s no way an exhibit like “Masks: Creating Identity” could have made its way to Durango without Mary Puller. And we can thank any number of the gods represented in the show that Puller is here, because it’s fantastic.

This isn’t the first time the exhibits director at Durango Arts Center has used her extensive network of connections to bring an exotic exhibit to the DAC: She demonstrated it in October for the tea-vessel exhibit. But “Masks” is something else entirely. More than 70 masks from six continents hang in the Barbara Conrad Gallery, and somehow Puller knew where to find each one of them.

“I know a lot of people who have masks,” Puller said.

She collected them from private individuals and museums throughout the U.S. Some are on loan and must be returned and others are for sale on consignment.

“People collect masks for different reasons,” she said. “Some are just beautiful. Others they may want to know more about that particular ceremony or culture. What’s nice about this is that most museums establish collections that are representative of an entire culture but this is a fairly broad representation of many.”

The Conrad Gallery is more like a museum for this exhibit. The masks and textiles on display are works of art to be sure, but they’re also like snapshots of each culture. It’s also a geography lesson – a partial list of countries includes Bali, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Java, Gabon, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, East Timor, China, Tibet, Nepal, India, Papua New Guinea, Bolivia and Burma/Myanmar.

For a population likely not well-versed in West African and Oceanic tribal customs, “Masks” has several “edu-taining” events planned.

Tonight, Santa Fe art consultant Alan Suits will give a free presentation on central and west African cultures and will bring more masks from his own collection. Saturday there will be a workshop on how to make masks from gourds. On April 12, Leslie Martin will talk about the people of Papua New Guinea with a presentation that includes video of the Baining Fire Dance. Masks from the ritual are included in the DAC exhibit.

The final two weeks of “Masks” will overlap with the Arts Center’s Creativity Festivity, geared toward younger visitors. Kids will make their own masks. The event also includes a poetry slam April 24 and a music performance April 26. Puller said she hung the “Masks” exhibit to leave room at the lower eye level for the kids’ masks to be displayed as well.

“I’m very excited to see the kids come in here,” Puller said. “I think their jaws will drop when they see this creativity.”

ted@durangoherald.com

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