Skip to Content
Delicately carved wooden ceremonial dance mask representing a seal | Donald Ellis Gallery

Dance Mask

Kuskokwim River, Alaska

ca. 1890–1910

wood, paint

height: 8 ¾"

Inventory # E4126



Acquired by the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, NY, in 1916 from an unknown source;
cat. no. 5/932
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


"Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists", Di Donna Galleries, New York, April 27 - June 29, 2018 PUBLISHED Art of the Arctic: Reflections of the Unseen (Masks), London: Black Dog Publishing, 2015, pg. 83, pl. 22

Jennifer Field, ed., Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists, New York: Di Donna Galleries, 2018, pgs. 56-57, 138

Related Examples

Burke Museum, Seattle, WA, cat. nos. 1.2E644, 1.2E642, 1.2E643, 1.2E645 and 1.2E646 – See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pgs. 88, 275 and 278 for other masks depicting similar images of seals

The downturned mouth of this evocative carving, purchased in New York by the surrealist artist Enrico Donati in 1945, is common on Yup’ik masks; it often denotes a sea mammal, perhaps one of a number of different seal species that frequent the sea and the tidal rivers of Alaska. Seals were central to Yup’ik life, providing much of what families needed to survive: food, clothing, and interior light, through seal-gut windows and skylights on which artists often painted episodes from family narratives. Seals were honoured and hunted with respect, and young men were trained in the protocols vital to maintaining reciprocity between the seal world and the human world.

It is possible that this small carving, only nine inches high, was one of a pair. The holes on the four corners suggest that it may not have been designed as a mask. Johan Adrian Jacobsen and Edward W. Nelson, two collectors of Yup’ik masks in the late 19th century, described seeing pairs of similarly designed “charm images.” Jacobsen observed that “Thunnerasut” (or tuunrissuutet) — “things of the helping spirits” — were “kept in the house to keep happiness and blessings.” Nelson noted that hunters might place the pairs in their kayaks to find a “balance [...] between the sea (the frowning face of the seal) and sky (the moon’s smiling face.)”

This is a sublime work, capturing in the face in the seal a hint of its yua, or spirit. In Yup’ik culture, if it was used as a charm, it wold probably have had a much longer life than if it had been carved as a mask. Attached to a house or a kayak, it would have assumed an active, ongoing spiritual relationship with the family or with the hunter searching the sea for seals.

— Colin Browne

Featured in the Press