Carved green jade face mask with wide mouth showing teeth, broad lips and nose. Holes for hanging.
The Olmec were the first major civilization in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica's formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500 BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE, but by 1600–1500 BCE, Early Olmec culture had emerged, centered on the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan site near the coast in southeast Veracruz. They were the first Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed. Among other "firsts", the Olmec appeared to practice ritual bloodletting and played the Mesoamerican ballgame, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies.
The aspect of the Olmecs most familiar now is their artwork, particularly the aptly named "colossal heads". The Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts which collectors purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America's most striking.
The Olmec culture was first defined as an art style, and this continues to be the hallmark of the culture. Wrought in a large number of media – jade, clay, basalt, and greenstone among others – much Olmec art, such as The Wrestler, is surprisingly naturalistic. Other art expresses fantastic anthropomorphic creatures, often highly stylized, using an iconography reflective of a religious meaning. Common motifs include downturned mouths and a cleft head, both of which are seen in representations of were-jaguars.
In addition to making human and human-like subjects, including phallic representations, Olmec artisans were adept at animal portrayals, fish and bird vessels. While Olmec figurines are found abundantly in sites throughout the Formative Period, the stone monuments such as the colossal heads are the most recognizable feature of Olmec culture.
The Olmec culture was fascinated by the human face and its expressions. Consider the following from Sadigh Gallery. Here we have a carved green jade face mask with wide mouth showing teeth, broad lips and nose. Holes for hanging. Size: 2 1/4" x 2 1/4” Date: 1150-550 BC.
Is this happiness? Pain? Anticipation? The embedded, yet essential ambiguity tells us all three at least. In some senses, the mask is reflective of how the observer is feeling as if, hermeneutic, self-reflective. As a part of mythic ritual –we expect these universal archetypes to be represented and this mask is a very effective reminder of totemage and the tribe of ancient South America.