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Yup'ik weather mask with feather-crowned smiling face and numerous appendages | Donald Ellis Gallery
Yup'ik weather mask with large  appendage and open hands inviting wind and rain | Donald Ellis Gallery
 Installation view of
The Donati mask on loan displayed at the Vancouver Art Gallery | Donald Ellis Gallery

Complex Dance Mask

Attributed to Ikamrailnguq (One Without a Sled)

ca. 1890-1905

wood, paint, sinew, vegetal fibre, cotton thread, feathers (replaced)

height: 34"

Inventory # CE3678

Please contact the gallery for more information.


Collected by Adams Hollis Twitchell
National Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, NY, no. 9/3389
Acquired by Julius Carlebach, New York, NY, July 1944
Acquired by Enrico Donati, New York, NY, January 1945
Donald Ellis Gallery, New York, NY
Private collection


“The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art,” Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC; May 28 - October 2, 2011
"Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists", Di Donna Galleries, New York, April 27 - June 29, 2018


Donald Ellis Gallery Catalogue, Toronto, 2011, pgs. 24 - 27
The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art. Ades, et. al., Vancouver, Vancouver Art Gallery, 2011, pg. 8
Art of the Arctic: Reflections of the Unseen (Masks), Ellis, London, Black Dog Publishing, 2015, pg. 45, pl. 8
Moon Dancers: Yup'ik Masks and the Surrealists, Field, Jennifer (Ed.), Di Donna Galleries, New York, 2018, pgs. 90-93, 141

Related Examples

For images of three masks by the same hand – See: Douglas, Frederic and D’Harnoncourt, Rene. Indian Art of the United States. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1941, pg. 175 and Devers, Sylvie et al. L’Art du Grande Nord. Paris: Citadelles & Mazenod, 2001, pgs. 560 and 561 (formerly NMAI 9/3409 and 9/3410 [the latter now in Musee du Quai Branly, Paris, No. 70.1999.1.1.1-3]) and The Menil Collection, Houston, TX (The Edward Carpenter Collection, New York) formerly NMAI No. 9/3428 – See: See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pg. 258 and Amez, Daniele (ed.). Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pgs. 160-161

For a drawing of this mask by Robert Lebel – See: Ibid: (Fienup-Riordon) pg. 263

The Beyeler Foundation, Basel, Switzerland, formerly NMAI – See: Bruderlin, Markus (ed.). Foundation Beyeler. Munich: Prestel Verlag, 1997, pg. 287, plate No. 159, Cat. no. 188 and Rubin, William. Primitivism in 20th Century Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988, pg. 621

National Museum of the American Indian, New York, Cat. Nos. 9/3432, 9/3427, 9/3429, 9/3431, 9/3394 and (unknown) See: Fienup-Riordan, Ann. The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996, pgs. 173, 259, 261, 161 and 263 and Amez, Daniele (ed.). Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pgs. 170-171

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, No. 1978.417.76 (The Michael Rockefeller Collection) formerly NMAI No. 9/3393 – See: Ibid, Fienup-Riordan, pg. 170 and Rubin, William. Primitivism in 20th Century Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988, pg. 84

A Yup’ik mask is a highly sophisticated communication device capable of conveying great bodies of knowledge through its use in danced performances. The complex mask is 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 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.

Adams Hollis Twitchell was a trader in Alaska who established himself along the Kuskokwim River in 1905. His interest in natural history and Native cultures led him to obtain significant groups of Yup’ik ceremonial masks from the area (see: Riordan 1996, pgs. 249-257). Although many people had field-collected Yup’ik masks around the turn of the century, Twitchell stands virtually alone in recording the original Yup’ik names and stories associated with some of the masks. In a March 1908 letter to Byron Gordon, the director of the University Museum, Philadelphia, Twitchell describes the difficulty of finding specimens but goes on to state: "....However, we have many masks that were made and used at the annual medicine dances and we have some of the stories that go with them. I attended one dance just to get the masks and information, and I went to another and stayed a week until it finished. I have written twenty-three pages describing it which I will send you later." (see: Riordan 1996, pgs. 249-257). Twitchell went on to collect a highly important group of fifty-five Yup’ik masks which he in turn sold to George Gustav Heye, who in 1916 had established his new Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, in New York. In the early 1940’s Heye, experiencing financial difficulties, began selling works from his museum. Between 1944 and 1946 the antiquarian Julius Carlebach acquired a group of twenty-six remarkable masks from the Heye Foundaton that had been collected on the Kuskokwim River by Twitchell.

Julius Carlebach had an antiques store on Third Avenue in New York which became a meeting place for a group of Surrealist artists and intellectuals who had fled Europe during The Second World War. Max Ernst, having discovered a carved Haida spoon in the window in 1941, returned often, bringing Andre Breton, Kurt Seligman, Marcel Duchamp, Yves Tanguy, Roberto Matta, and others including Enrico Donati.

Enrico Donati first developed a fascination with American Indian art when visiting the Musee de l’Homme as a young man in Paris. This interest was further cultivated by a trip Donati made to America in 1934, travelling to the southwestern United States and northern Canada trading: “feathers, Venetian beads...jack knives, the Swiss kind with all the gadgets – Hopis, Zunis, Apaches – I bartered with them all” (see: Ratcliffe 1989, pg. 175 ). Returning to America in 1939, Donati joined this group of exiled Surrealists who were equally captivated by the dream-based imagery of Yup’ik masks. While most of these masks lay virtually ignored in museum warehouse storage, the Surrealists were among the first to recognize them as exceptionally refined works of art.

In January, 1945, Donati acquired from Carlebach the superb complex mask illustrated here, which hung in his studio in the Gainsborough Building on Central Park South for over sixty years (see photo insert). The Donati Studio Mask is one of twelve “weather related” masks collected by Twitchell. It is accompanied by a note which reads: "Mask representing Oangiluk, the rain spirit that brings warm weather. He is supposed to be in the South facing the Kuskokwim country. When the wind strikes him in the rear, he spreads out his hands, and as the wind and rain pass through him they become mild and warm. The wind passes through the large tube." In essence the mask translates a benevolent force of nature into a more easily comprehensible being whose perceived role is to offer help to the people of the village in the form of warm weather and the accompanying influx of game. In Yup’ik life, the ability to obtain food is inextricably linked to communicating with the “other world”, in which a shaman’s ability to call the southwind was essential to bringing an end to winter and the return of birds and mammals. The anthropologist Ernest Hawkes observed a masked dance at St. Michaels, Alaska, in the winter of 1911-12 and observed: “...the last to perform was the shaman. At the end of his trance-like performance...he informed the audience that the inua (spirit) of the animals had been pleased with the dances and had promised their continued assistance in the hunt.” (see: Vastokas 1967, pg. 66). An elder present goes on to say: ” stop the Eskimo from singing and dancing...was like cutting the tongue out of a bird. They did not dance for pleasure alone, but so their families might be fed.” (see: Riordan 1996, pg. 142).

In the important sculpture illustrated here, we see wind and rain represented as a subject under the control of the masked dancer. The arching appendage at the top of the mask suggests the overall directional force of the wind, and it is easy to imagine how the rhythmic motion of the dangles would capture the choreographed dance of leaves in the wind, or the sparkle of waves on water. The large hollow tube evokes the force of the wind itself and the sticks suspended from the lower appendages suggest rain falling from clouds. The parallel paths of individual raindrops shift in unison in response to the actions of the wind, just as the sticks move rhythmically in response to the movement of the performer. This interpretation of seemingly abstract design elements is well supported by the few descriptive lines that Twitchell recorded. The mask is exceptionally dramatic in appearance, yet supremely elegant in the carefully balanced presentation of its elaborate composition. The beautifully carved face emerges in subtle relief from the elliptical central form, and is further enhanced by the application of pigment. A complex array of shapes and movable elements surrounds it, adding to the sense of mystery, creating a visual symphony of shape and form. 

Of the twelve weather-related masks collected by Twitchell, four share many stylistic similarities (see: Riordan 1996, pgs. 258 and 259). Though they differ in some of their details, it is reasonable to conclude that these four, together with the Donati Studio mask are by the same artist. A pair of Swan masks, the iconic mask example once owned by Andre Breton now in the Pavillion des Sessions at the Louvre (see: Devers 2001, pgs. 560-561), the other acquired from Carlebach by George Duthuit, the son-in-law of Henri Matisse, are also by the same hand. The Duthuit mask was included in the landmark show “Indian Art of the United States” in 1941 at the Museum of Modern Art, the first exhibition to present Native American Art together with Western Art in a major museum (see: D’Harnoncourt 1941, pg. 175). Another of the Twitchell masks was featured in “Primitivism in 20th Century Art” in 1984 at the Museum of Modern Art, and was subsequently acquired by Ernst Beyeler, and is now at Fondation Beyeler, in Basel, Switzerland (see: Rubin 1984, pg. 621).

This compelling group of masks constitutes what is perhaps the greatest body of North American Indian Art ever created. The Surrealists recognized this, and the influence of these masks on the evolution of Western Art must not be underestimated. The Donati Studio mask is the final example of these extraordinary works of art remaining in private hands, representing a rare opportunity to acquire an artistic masterpiece of monumental importance.

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