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Carved wooden mask representing the moon as well as the universe though its hoops | Donald Ellis Gallery

Dance Mask

Kuskokwim River, Alaska

ca. 1880

wood, paint, vegetal fibres

width: 11 ¼"

Inventory # E4125



Collected by Adams Hollis Twitchell likely between 1905 and 1915 on the Kuskokwim River
Acquired by the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, NY, in 1919; cat no. 9/3395
Acquired by Julius Carlebach, New York, NY, in January 1945
Acquired by Enrico Donati, New York, NY, in 1945
Donald Ellis Gallery, New York, NY

Related Examples

Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pgs. 168 & 245

A Yup’ik mask is a highly sophisticated communication device capable of conveying great bodies of knowledge through use in danced performances. Each mask is unique, created as a tangible manifestation of a Shaman's vision, bringing the unseen or unknowable into a solid form to communicate to the audience. Meaning is captured in the spatial relationships between the various elements and in the interaction with other masked players in the performance. The goal of the artist is to produce an object that transforms the identity of the dancer, who in turn animates the object through the introduction of sound and motion. 

The Yup’ik only danced each mask once. Afterward, the mask was left to wither and decay. Between 1905 and 1915, a trader by the name of Adam Hollis Twitchell, who had established himself along the Kuskokwim River, attended a series of Yup’ik dances. He went on to collect a highly important group of masks, including the present example. In the 1940’s, the mask was acquired by the Surrealist Enrico Donati. At a time when most Yup’ik masks lay virtually ignored in museum warehouse storage, the Surrealists were among the first to recognize their intrinsic aesthetic as well as spiritual value. Elevating them to the status of exceptionally refined works of art, the influence of the dream-based imagery of Yup’ik masks on the evolution of Western Art must not be underestimated.

The visible holes surrounding the face of this powerful mask indicate that it may have been fitted with attachments in the past, possibly of small figurines of sea mammals, fish, and game. The face invokes and portrays the yua, or spirit, of a heavenly body. Art historian Robert Lebel’s note on this drawing of the mask is limited to one word: “lune.” Some shamans, or angalkut, had the supernatural ability to visit the Moon to ask the spirits of the animals who lived there to bless the community and its hunters with their return when spring arrived, The hands on this mask can be understood as a gesture of open arms, a sign that the Moon will welcome the approach of the shaman. Its hands are without thumbs so that the procession of animals may pass by on their way to earth without being pulled back. Was this mask once danced as a character in a performance illustrating the angalkuq’s journey to the sky to appeal for the Moon’s benediction? The mask’s sacred nature is indicated by the red ochre paint on the Moon’s round face, and its downturned crescent eyes and mouth. The downturned mouth also suggests that in this performance its yua may have been female, although in many of the oral histories the Moon is male. We can not know the words to the song, or appaluq, associated with this mask, but some Yup’ik oral histories suggest that the Sun is a transformed woman chased through the sky by her brother, the Moon. Could the dance involving this mask have included a Sun mask? Or was this Moon mask danced on its own?

— Colin Browne

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