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Portrait Mask

Tsimshian,
Northern British Columbia

ca. 1840

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Essay

Unlike many forms of Northwest Coast masks which typically display varying degrees of abstraction, portrait masks are so-called due to their lifelike quality.  They appear to be directly based on the facial characteristics of Northwest Coast native peoples, in some cases specific individuals.  Often asymmetrically painted, as in this example, portrait masks can be readily compared to ceremonial face painting patterns recorded by 19th century ethnologists and the occasional early photograph.

This extraordinary mask exhibits many arrestingly realistic features, particularly in the areas of the nose and mouth.  The surface of the wood appears to sensitively mirror the shape of human cheeks, with prominent cheek bones and the soft ridges where the cheeks meet the nostril flares.  The addition of human hair on the temples, the fine dashed lines of black paint indicating a moustache and beard, and the naturalistic carved ears also add to the strong sense of realism seen in the carving, and confirm the portrait-like quality of this engaging sculpture.

Portrait masks were used in dramatic re-enactments by secret societies to tell stories relating to family histories, often representing ancestors who took part in historical or mythical events. One has only to imagine the impact on an enthralled audience, in the time before photography, as a dancer wearing this startlingly lifelike mask emerged from the shadows to enact the living history of his people.

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Owl Effigy Bowl N3994

Columbia River region
Washington or Oregon

Pre-contact
N3994
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