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Monumental Yup’ik dance mask with the face of a seal and a small human figure | Donald Ellis Gallery

Complex Dance Mask

Kuskokwim River, Alaska 

ca. 1880

wood, paint, feathers

height: 35"

Inventory # CE4298

Please contact the gallery for more information.


Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, No. 10/8073
Acquired by Julius Carlebach, New York, NY
Acquired by Enrico Donati, New York, NY, in January, 1945
Donald Ellis Gallery, New York, NY
Private collection, New York, NY


Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, De Young Museum: The Surreal World of Enrico Donati, June 9, 2007–September 2, 2007
The Colour of My Dreams, Vancouver Art Gallery, May 28–October 2, 2011
"Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists", Di Donna Galleries, New York, April 27–June 29, 2018


Burgard, Timothy. The Surreal World of Enrico Donati. 
San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2007, pg. 53
The Colour Of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2011, pg. 243
Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2011, pgs. 34-37
Art of the Arctic: Reflections of the Unseen (Masks), Ellis, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2015, ps. 39. pl. 5
Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists, Field, Jennifer (Ed.), Di Donna Galleries, New York, 2018, pgs. 102-103, 141

Related Examples

Museum fur Volkerkunde, Hamburg, Germany – See: Rubin, William. Primitivism in 20th Century Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988, pg. 576 and Amez, Daniele (ed.). Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pgs. 258-259

Detroit Institute of Arts – See: Penney, David and Longfish, George C. Native American Art. Westport: Hugh Lauter Levine and Associates, 1994, pg. 242

Private collection, Connecticut – See: Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pgs. 250-251

This monumental dance mask depicts a central concept of Yup’ik cosmology: the shaman's journey to the spirit-world in search of good fortune for his people in the coming year. A Yup’ik ceremonial dance brings a shaman's vision to life before an audience, and allows for an interaction with unseen forces of nature. The performance re-creates the desired outcome in an effort to form a harmonious and cooperative relationship between the spirit world and the everyday world of the people.

Acting upon the direct instructions of a shaman, an artist carves a mask that gives physical form to the shaman's vision. The artist's goal is to produce an object that transforms the identity of the dancer, who in turn animates the object through the motions of his dance to tell a story. This interaction between mask, dancer, and audience is the essence of Yup’ik art. The process of creation is completed only when the performance takes place.

The conceptual nature of Yup’ik art, together with the focus on dream-based imagery, came to the attention of members of the Surrealist Movement who recognized the artistic power of what they saw. Beginning in the 1930s, artists including Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Max Ernst, and Enrico Donati all sought out Yup’ik art as an inspiration and influence.

In the dramatic composition illustrated here, the upper portion of the mask reveals a shaman with his raised arms grasping two long sticks, likely harpoons, in his thumbless hands, his body opened to display a toothy red interior. At the center is a protruding object that may represent a heart, or perhaps another vital organ. This feature can be seen on a number of other Yup’ik objects, most notably, a drum handle in the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI 20/9343), and a bone charm in the Peabody Museum of Natural History (see: Furst 1982, pg. 159). The cavity in the Peabody charm is described as a “reddened lifeline,” a link between the animal and its human form. The lower portion of the Donati mask depicts a walrus or a seal. It is unclear whether the shaman is riding on the animal’s back, or if the animal is emerging from within the shaman. This transformation of spirit is visually ambiguous, perhaps representing a birth or a shift in identity from human to animal.

In interpreting this composition it is important to consider the non-linear nature of narrative in Yup’ik mythology. Stories do not necessarily progress from a clear beginning to an end as in Western literature. Cause and effect are not represented as separate events, but rather occur simultaneously in the visual image. We see a transformation in progress, without a defined beginning or end.

Two other masks are closely related in design to the powerful image seen here. Each depicts a similar shaman with an exposed reddened interior paired with an animal. The example in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Hamburg, likely by the same hand, depicts a shaman paired with a beaver-like animal. This mask was included in the highly important exhibition “Primitivism in 20th Century Art,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1984 (see: Rubin 1984, pg. 576). The other, now in the Detroit Institute of Arts, depicts a shaman paired with a sea bird (see: Penney 1994, pg. 242). The relationship between these three masks is not entirely clear. Although they exhibit distinct similarities in both form and execution, they also differ in some ways. Each portrays a different animal, suggesting three different stories. Whether they were created by the same artist on three separate occasions, or were made simultaneously to illustrate three figures at a single performance, remains uncertain.

In 1936 André Breton collaborated with the art dealer Charles Ratton in organizing the seminal exhibition: “Exposition Surréaliste d’Objects” in Paris. We know that the Hamburg mask was featured as a centerpiece of the show, as it was captured in a photograph taken by Man Ray at the time (see: Paris Musées 1998, pg. 32). Eight years later, in 1944, the antiquarian Julius Carlebach purchased the related Donati mask from the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. An original bill of sale dated January 17, 1945, reveals that Donati paid $325 for this extraordinary work of art, an amount more than double the price Carlebach had charged for any other Yup’ik mask. Perhaps this was due to his knowledge of the related Hamburg mask featured so prominently at the Paris exhibition.

Donati often spoke of how he created “another world” in his studio, surrounded by his rocks, masks, and other curiosities. A world of his own, distant from the outside world. As an artist, Enrico Donati recognized the profound narrative power of this remarkable sculpture, and it served as an inspiration to his work for over sixty years.

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