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Frontal view of a painted wooden Yup’ik Shaman’s mask depicting a helping spirit | Donald Ellis Gallery

Nepcetaq Mask

Lower Yukon River, Alaska, Likely Andreafsky Village

19th century

wood, white, red and green paint

width: 12"

Inventory # E3533



Donald Ellis Gallery, New York, NY
Private collection, Boston, MA


Art of The Ancestors, Shaw, Aspen, Aspen Art Museum, 2004, pg. 71
Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2010, pgs. 22 - 23


Fienup-Riordan, Ann. Yup’ik Elders at the Ethnlogisches Museum, Berlin: Fieldwork Turned on Its Head.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005 pg. 232, pl. 11.6

Rousselot, Jean-Loup. Abel, Bernard. Pierre, Jose. Bihl, Catherine. Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pg. 346

Ceremonial dance masks act as a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds of Yup’ik speaking peoples. Whether created by the shaman himself, or by an expert carver under his instruction, masks are a physical manifestation of the shaman’s vision of the spirit world.

In this Nepcetaq, or “Shaman’s Mask,” the artist has depicted a helping spirit bordered by a flat plane representing the boundary between the realm of animal spirits and that of our everyday world. This grinning spirit face is often interpreted as a depiction of the archetypal “Gatekeeper,” or “Man in the Moon,” who allows animals to pass into the world. By his power, four small animal heads, likely seals, appear as they emerge into the world of Yup’ik hunters, ready to be taken as prey.

When employed in a dance, the Nepcetaq mask was thought to stick to the shaman’s face by its own force, at times without the aid of a suspension cord or mouth grip. This was an indication of the shaman’s power. If his power waned, or if someone other than the owner attempted to use it, the mask would no longer stick. While most dance masks were destroyed or abandoned after serving their purpose in a ceremony, the Nepcetaq was kept by its shaman owner and reused over time. Only when the shaman died, or otherwise lost his power, would the mask be retired and discarded.

The delicately modelled facial features of this exceptional mask contrast beautifully with the boldness of the overall design. The artist has carefully planned the placement of the circular face on his initial slab of wood to best take advantage of a bend in the grain and further enhance the subtle curves of the form. His careful application of paint is his final step in creating this powerful image.

—Bill Wolf, November 2009

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