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A highly expressive Yup’ik dance mask likely representing a gull or other seabird | Donald Ellis Gallery

Dance Mask

Kuskokwim River, Alaska

ca. 1890

wood, paint, hide, vegetal fibers, feathers (replaced)

height: 9 ½"
width: 6 ¾"

Inventory # CE3462b


feathers replaced, otherwise no restoration or repair


Collected by Adam Hollis Twitchell circa 1900
Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, No. 9/3390 (1919)
Acquired by Julius Carlebach, New York, NY, in 1944 (See NMAI card attached)
Robert Lebel Collection, Paris, France, by descent to his son, Jean-Jacques Lebel
Calmels Cohen, Paris, December 4, 2006, lot 12


"Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists", Di Donna Galleries, New York, April 27 - June 29, 2018


Donald Ellis Gallery Catalogue 2010, pgs. 16-17
Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2012, pg. 9
Art of the Arctic: Reflections of the Unseen (Masks), Ellis, London, Black Dog Publishing, 2015, pg. 49, pl. 10
Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists, Field, Jennifer (Ed.), Di Donna Galleries, New York, 2018, pgs. 72-74, 140

Related Examples

Formerly National Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, Nos. 9/3423 and 9/3425 See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pgs. 251 and 269 for two very similar examples collected by Twitchell in the early 1900’s

Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection, Cooperstown, New York – See: Amez, Daniele (ed.). Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pgs. 116-117

This dance mask was acquired by the Kuskokwim trader and field collector Adams Hollis Twitchell during his time in Alaska from 1905 until his death in 1949. The masks collected by Twitchell in the Kuskokwim River region are considered to be among the most elaborate and important examples extant (see: Fienup-Riordan 1996, pg. 249). A group of 55 of these masks was ultimately acquired by the wealthy New York collector Gustav Heye, and in 1916 were moved to his new museum in New York City where thousands of his artifacts were housed. Financial difficulties in the 1940’s, and the realization that the Heye collection contained many paired masks, were both incentives for Heye to deaccession. Heye’s biographer, Kevin Wallace, described the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation at that time as virtually a “Surrealist Macy’s” as artists and intellectuals flocked to the museum taking home hundreds if not thousands of specimens (see: Ibid, pg. 260). Among these visitors was the New York antiquarian Julius Carlebach who in the 1940’s alone acquired at least 64 masks, and by 1969 had acquired 26 of the masks Twitchell had sent east from the Kuskokwim River (see: Ibid, pg. 260).

The story of the Yup’ik masks is inextricably linked to that of the Surrealists, a group of artists and intellectuals who having fled the Second World War and settled in New York, became fascinated with Native American art in the American Museum of Natural History and the Heye Foundation. Their discoveries rekindled an interest first encountered at the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition of objects organized by Andre Breton at the Charles Ratton Gallery in Paris where masks were exhibited alongside works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro and other surrealist artists. In 1941, the artist Max Ernst happened upon Carlebach’s antiques shop at 643 Third Avenue, returning frequently with Andre Breton, Georges Duthuit, Bernard Reiss, Enrico Donati, Claude Levis-Strauss, Roberto Matta and others. Carlebach had found a receptive and enthusiastic group of collectors for the treasures he was acquiring from the Heye Foundation. It was here, in 1944, that Robert Lebel, a member of the Surrealist group and the biographer of Marcel Duchamp, acquired this mask.

This expressive mask represents the spirit of a seabird, very likely a gull. The generous use of feathers encircling the mask points to the importance of seabirds to coastal peoples, and their central role in many ceremonies. It has been suggested that Yup’ik hunters were protected and empowered by taking on a birdlike identity, and that individuals in ceremonies such as the Bladder Festival would actually become a seabird (see: Ibid, pg. 160).

Whatever the precise meaning, this wonderful mask image projects the power and mystery of the Yup’ik spiritual world.

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