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Vividly painted wooden Yupik dance mask with carved figural appendages | Donald Ellis Gallery

Dance Mask

Lower Yukon River, Alaska

early 20th century

wood, paint, vegetal fibers, feathers

width: 24 ½"

Inventory # CE3016



This monumental dance mask was reportedly purchased by Jesuit missionary, Rev. Paul O’Connor, resident at Pilot Station, a Yup’ik village on the Lower Yukon River, from 1931 to 1933. The native owner of the mask was apparently an important member of the community, referred to in the collection notes as a “chief” who had acquired the mask from his father.

Aubin Robert Berthold, Seattle, WA

Aubin Robert Berthold was president of the fish canning firm Alaska Packers, based in Seattle, Washington. Mr. Berthold travelled annually to Alaska to supervise the salmon pack during the 1940’s through the 1960’s. He was apparently an avid collector of local artefacts, acquiring many through the early 19th century trader in native materials, Frank Waskey.

Aubin Knight Berthold, San Francisco, CA, by descent from his father


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2003, pgs. 28-29
Art of the Arctic: Reflections of the Unseen (Masks), Ellis, London, Black Dog Publishing, 2015, pg. 23, pl. 12
Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists, Field, Jennifer (Ed.), Di Donna Galleries, New York, 2018, pg. 19.

Related Examples

University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology, Cat. No. A2 579 (unpublished)

This mask is almost certainly by the same hand as one in the UBC Museum of Anthropology, and one that appears in an undated photograph of Yup’ik dancers in the vicinity of Hooper Bay - See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup’ik Masks, Fienup-Riordan, University of WA Press, 1996, pg. 296

Alaska State Museum, Juneau, Cat. Nos. 11A5395 and 11A5396 – See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pg. 107, for a later pair of masks carved at Hooper Bay in 1946 by George Bunyan

The masking tradition of the Yup’ik speaking people of Alaska is made up of two distinct branches; the secular and the spiritual. While spirituality can be said to permeate much of everyday life in the region, shamanism falls clearly and exclusively within the spiritual realm.

Shamanic practitioners used masks known as nepecitaq, or “the ones that cling to the face”, to demonstrate their power as intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds. Used primarily in performances involving visions, nepecitaq were additionally used by shamans while performing healing rituals. In contrast, masks were also danced as part of the important winter ceremony “Agayuyaraq”. These elaborate masked dances were a means of influencing the natural world to bring abundance to the participants and others in the village. Yup’ik informant Paul John describes the masks he saw as a young man as being “...examples of what people can catch… representing what people might not have had… Our ancestors decorated them with things that were desirable to acquire” (see: Fienup-Riordan 1996, pg. 60).

This whimsical mask incorporates key elements of the Yup’ik natural world. The central face likely represents a seal spirit or “inua”. Surrounding the central image are fish, quadrupeds resembling arctic foxes, and a pair of hands. In keeping with Yup’ik masking tradition, the hands are without thumbs, a trait said to indicate the hunter’s willingness to allow some animals to escape, thus assuring future bounty.

Collection notes accompanying this mask state that “...This mask (age unknown) belonged to an Eskimo chieftain who being in dire straits needing money, the Reverend Father Paul O’Connor arranged for its purchase”. We know that O’Connor was resident at Pilot Station, a Yup’ik village on the Lower Yukon River between 1931 and 1933. We also know that masked dances were discouraged and even forbidden during this period, under the influence of Christian doctrine. However, in 1946, Father Fox of Hooper Bay, a neighboring village, gave permission to prepare dances and make masks in anticipation of the arrival of Alfred and Elma Milotte, who were to produce the Walt Disney film Alaskan Eskimo that year. The Hooper Bay dances were the first held in the region in over twenty years. Based on this information, we can conclude that this mask was not new at the time of collection, and likely dates to the 1st quarter of the 20th century.

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