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Portrait mask with red and black face painting and hair hide fastenings - Donald Ellis Gallery
Portrait mask with projecting lips, protruding chin and downward cast eyes - Donald Ellis Gallery

Portrait Mask

Northern British Columbia

ca. 1860

wood, paint, hair hide fastenings

height: 10 ½"

Inventory # CN3678


acquired by The Audain Art Museum, Whistler, BC


The Ralph C. Altman Collection, Los Angeles, CA                                     
This mask is from the collection of Ralph C. Altman (1908 – 1967), the legendary pioneer dealer and collector of “primitive art” who opened one of the first galleries of its kind in America in Los Angeles in 1946


Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2011, pgs. 8-9


Holm, Bill. Box of Daylight. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984, page 41, pl. 45
Sotheby’s, New York, May 30/99, lot 259
Sotheby’s, New York, June 4/97, lot 216

This striking mask shows its Tsimshian heritage in the sculptural forms of the face. In profile view a nearly straight line is formed by the peak of the brow ridge, the tip of the nose, the forward projection of the lips, and the protruding chin. These elements converge to create a distinctly powerful image. The downward cast of the eyes and their high position in the eyesockets also indicate the influence of Tsimshian sculptural style. The thin lips and fairly long, narrow eyebrows, along with the prominent cheekbones and nose characteristics are further markers of the sculptural approach taken by Tsimshian carvers.

The Tsimshian culture area is sometimes referred to as the land of Simoigyet after the Native name of the common language family. It covers a broad area of the northern British Columbia coast, from the Alaska border at Portland Canal and south, including the valleys of the Nass and Skeena Rivers. Over that range, in addition to linguistic differences, there are to be found variances in sculptural traditions. It is uncertain from which area of the Tsimshian coast this mask originates. A great deal of trade and gifting within the culture distributed artworks in some cases far from their points of origin, making regional attributions difficult. An educated attribution would suggest that this mask originated in the southern Tsimshian region, close to its borders with the Haisla/Heiltsuk culture areas and their sculptural influences.

The painting of this mask is unusual, with red on the upper face and black in the area beneath the nose and cheekbones. Red and black pigments were used for ceremonial face paintings, which distinguished members of particular secret societies by the designs and color patterns they wore. It is likely that this arresting mask exhibits a painted design that was drawn from one of the face-painting patterns belonging to one of the ceremonial societies.

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