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Complex Yup'ik dance mask depicting the Inua (spirits) of several sea mammals | Donald Ellis Gallery

Complex Dance Mask

Likely Goodnews Bay, Southwest Alaska

ca. 1890-1905

wood, paint, vegetal fiber

height: 34 ½"

Inventory # E4200

Please contact the gallery for more information.


This mask was collected in Alaska in the late 19th century by Joseph E. Chilberg. Chilberg traveled to Alaska for the gold rush, and over a period of approximately 20 years, amassed a large and significant collection of Yup'ik art. In 1917 Chilberg established Chilberg’s Alaska Museum of Arctic Antiquity and Curio Emporium in Long Beach, California, which remained in operation until 1935.

Joseph E. Chilberg
Museum of the American Indian, New York, Cat. No. 5/430, exchanged to Edward Primus in October 1957
The artist Roberto Matta, Paris, France, by descent through the family


Arts primitifs dans les ateliers d’artistes, Paris, Musée de l’Homme, 1967, in the catalogue: plate 33: the caption reads as follows : “Collection Matta MASQUE H. 84 cm , Eskimo, Alaska, Epoque contemporaine. Bois peint. Masque d’inua représentant le saumon et son double humain, à face gaie et à face triste, selon peut-être qu’il est favorable ou défavorable au pêcheur.
Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists, Field, Jennifer (Ed.), Di Donna Galleries, New York, 2018, pgs. 128, 130-131, 143. (Exh.: "Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists", Di Donna Galleries, New York, April 27 - June 29, 2018)

Related Examples

Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Calgary, Alberta – See: Ager Wallen, Lynn. The Face of Dance: Yup’ik Eskimo Masks From Alaska. Calgary: The Glenbow Museum, 1990 pg. 29 for a smaller mask in the image of a salmon.

Denver Art Museum – See: Rousselot, Jean-Loup and Abel, Bernard. Pierre, Jose. Bihl, Catherine. Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pg. 157 for a later complex mask in the form of a salmon

Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum, Seattle, WA, 
Cat. No. 4528 – See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pg. 162 and Rousselot, Jean-Loup. Abel, Bernard. Pierre, Jose. Bihl, Catherine. Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pg. 267 for a similar monumental mask collected by Ellis Allen in 1912

Yup’ik carvers are very careful about symmetry, balance and harmony when making masks that operate in a multi-dimensional universe. The three visible dimensions of the physical mask are augmented by the movements of the dancer through time, and the implications associated with being mirrored in the invisible dimensions it depicts. They fine equilibrium in the invisible gyroscope of the human imagination. 

The carvers were guided by their understanding of the world they shared with their ancestors and with the visible and invisible animals and spirits they would have glimpsed since infancy in the masks of their elders.The internal and external symmetry of this mask therefore corresponds to a body of local, empirical knowledge built on observation rather than superstition.

The long, painted body of this magical mask, at one time owned by the Surrealist artist Roberto Matta, would appear to be that of a fish. It has two pectoral fins (or are the seal flippers?) and on its back there are two faces. The face with the downturned mouth is that of a sea mammal, and the face “above” the seal, conjoined in the fishy cockpit, seems to be a land animal with four paws. At the tail there are two more fins or possibly sea mammal flippers. The faces represent the “Spirit persons” of the sea mammal and the land animal — their yuit — and above the tail the carver has placed a single willow-root hoop, or ellanguaq, which places the mask within the known universe. 

After the ceremonies, after the spits had returned to the other side, to the invisible world, the masks would become inert, and the community would be filled with hope for a bountiful harvest to come. The mask’s symmetries, which present a vision of everything in its place, may anticipate the renewal of spiritual and worldly harmony with the return of spring and its warm south winds. 

— Colin Browne

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