The Gierke collection of Yup’ik masks is particularly significant, as it presents the viewer with a remarkable grouping of masks conceived as a cohesive whole for use in a single ceremonial dance festival. This common origin provides us with a rare opportunity to experience an overall effect beyond that afforded by the individual works in isolation. Having been created and presented as a single artistic vision, this group of masks presents a unique microcosm, in which the audience and participants directly encounter their spirit world.
Robert Gierke was a trader who worked along the Kuskokwim River, operating a shop in the village of Bethel, Alaska, between 1905 and 1941. Unlike many other traders who often took advantage of the Native people, Robert Gierke had a reputation as a fair and honest man.
After a particularly poor fishing season and the Native villagers facing a winter of starvation, Gierke lent his boat to drive a pod of whales into the Kuskokwim River, where the villagers were able to capture them and store enough meat to carry them through the winter. In gratitude for this selfless act, and having previously heard of Gierke’s desire to obtain some masks, the villagers quietly left an entire collection of their masks in a box on the steps of his store.
Upon his retirement in 1941, Gierke moved to Seattle, Washington, where he kept the masks stored away. There they remained untouched until his death some 37 years later. At that time, his descendants opened the box and discovered the collection of masks. Unfortunately, many of the appendages had been removed before the masks were packed, and the key to reassembling them was lost with Gierke’s passing.
The family chose several of the masks to keep as mementoes of their adventurous ancestor. Some 26 remaining masks were donated along with the rest of Gierke’s artifact collection to the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, where they reside today.
This unique sequence of events has resulted in the intact preservation of the largest known original grouping of historic Yup’ik masks. In considering these masks from a conceptual perspective, the importance of this collection quickly becomes apparent. While these masks are highly interesting individually, it is when they are considered as a group that they demonstrate a complex series of relationships which together comprise a truly magnificent work of art.
The Gierke Collection is remarkable for its cohesiveness and regularity of style. These masks are clearly the work of a single artist or of a close-knit collaboration with a certain singularity of vision. While there are clear references to established Yup’ik design motifs, the artist has injected much of his own original vision into his work. Though they may in instances appear to be crafted quickly, the consistently sure-handed execution of these masks suggests the work of a confident, experienced sculptor. We sense no hesitation across a wide range of varied forms. This consistency is one of the primary elements that so successfully weaves together this group into a unified whole.
The majority of the Gierke masks are conceived as pairs or sets of three. Though some pairs are nearly identical in appearance, others present a mirrored symmetry of form, or variations in details such as color scheme or secondary elements that appear to comment on the nature of duality.
In addition to obvious similarities in overall design style, there are other less apparent features that are often shared across various pairs or individual masks. Similar treatment in the rendering of common elements, such as the construction of surrounding bentwood hoops or the formation of appendages, also serves to highlight the interconnectedness of the group and links the whole body of work together.
Within any Yup’ik performance, a complex composition is formed through the relationship of many individual elements. The artist who presents his work in this context understands that much of his “story” is constructed in a non-linear fashion. The narrative lines of the “conversation” are presented by the artist through both the visual appearance of his work and the actions of the performer who presents it to the audience. In this sense, since we lack the experience of the performance, we are left with only a portion of the overall message. We are surely fortunate that this visually striking group of masks still commands our attention and inspires us with wonder at what once was.