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Delicately carved Yupik dance mask with sublime expression and bird feathers | Donald Ellis Gallery

Dance Mask

Kuskokwim River, Alaska

ca. 1880

wood, paint, feathers (replaced)

height: 7 ⅞"

Inventory # CE4324

Please contact the gallery for more information.


The Fred Harvey Collection
Donation James B. Ford, 1917
Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, cat. no. 6/2467
Acquired by Julius Carlebach, New York, NY, August 24, 1943
Robert Lebel Collection, Paris, France, by descent to his son, Jean-Jacques Lebel
Calmels Cohen, Paris, December 4, 2006, lot 15
Donald Ellis Gallery, New York, NY
Private collection


The Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, ON, November 2008 – 2016
“The Colour of my Dreams: Surrealism and Revolution in Art,” Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC; May 28 – September 25, 2011
"Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists", Di Donna, New York, April 27 – June 29, 2018


Masques eskimo d’Alaska, Danielle Amez (ed.); Saint-Vit, France, Éditions Amez, 1991, pg. 202
The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art, Ades, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011, pg. 257
Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists, Field, Jennifer (Ed.), Di Donna Galleries, New York, 2018, pgs. 82-83


Sheldon Jackson Museum, Cat Nos. IIH1 and IIH2 – See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pg. 105, for a pair of masks collected by Reverend Sheldon Jackson at Cape Vancouver ca. 1890

Sheldon Jackson Museum, Cat. Nos. IIG6,IIG7 and IIG8 for a group of 3 masks collected at St. Michael by Henry Neumann in 1890 – See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pgs. 152 and 153

Who is this visiting spirit with its two inverted, crescent-shaped eyes, its fur trim, and its three split quills designed to bob and bend during the dance? A narrow vertical cleft, daubed with red ochre, divides its face in half, or into two. Its mouth, as was common on the front and the back of Yup’ik masks, has been rimmed with red ochre — the paint was often made by mixing powdered ochre with blood — and, mysteriously, a wedge of red ochre paint expands from a point on the left side of the mouth to the edge of the face. The surface of the mask, possibly carved from a cottonwood stump, would have gleamed with white a buffed-up coat of white clay, possibly fetched from Nelson Island.

Many dance masks of a similar nature were made in the districts around St. Michael in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Strategically located in Norton Sound, St. Michael was established by Russian fur traders in 1833 and soon became a destination for Inupiak in the north and Yup’ik in the south. As the trappers and their families intermingled, traditions became blended, and masks associated with St. Michael are often said to share characteristics of both cultures.

The downturned crescent eyes, its features, and its similarity to owl masks from the St. Michael area suggest that this mask may represent an owl or, more accurately, the yua, or spirit of an owl. The yua in this case reveals itself as a “human” face while retaining some characteristics of the bird.The mouth is wide open, as if singing, hooting, or calling out; it is likely the mask would have been carved to communicate song. Danced as one of a pair, the presentation of this mask, and the story told by the shaman to those watching and listening in the ceremonial house, would have provided an explanation.

— Colin Browne

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