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Frontal view of a complex carved and painted mask featuring a walrus and a salmon | Donald Ellis Gallery

Dance Mask

Kuskokwim River (?), Alaska

ca. 1890-1910

wood, paint, feathers

height: 23"

Inventory # CE3462a


acquired by the Louvre Abu Dhabi


National Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, NY; no. 5/940 (1916)
Acquired by Julius Carlebach, New York, NY, in 1944 
Robert Lebel Collection, Paris, France; by descent to his son, Jean-Jacques Lebel, Paris, France
Calmels Cohen, Paris, France, December 4, 2006; lot 10
Donald Ellis Gallery, New York, NY
Le Musée du Louvre, Abu Dhabi, UAE


“Le Masque,” Annexe du Musée Guimet, Paris, France; December 1959 – May 1960


Arts Sauvages, Claude Roy, Paris, France, Robert Delpire, 1957; pg. 100 
Le Masque, Musée Guimet, Paris, France, Éditions des Musées Nationaux, 1959; pg. 109 (notation only)
Masques eskimo d’Alaska, Danielle Amez (ed.); Saint-Vit, France, Éditions Amez, 1991; pg. 277
Donald Ellis Gallery catalogue, 2010, pg. 21 and 2012, pl. 33

This Yup’ik transformation mask illustrates many of the fundamental beliefs of the people who created it. Within the presence of a Yup’ik mask, familiar physical laws of reality are suspended as a means of interacting with the supernatural. In the case of the commanding mask illustrated here, multiple subjects are arranged in a composition in which they simultaneously occupy a single space. As a walrus, salmon and “tunghak”, or spirit helper share that space, they present an act of transformation within a world-view that recognizes multiple identities within a single entity.  Beings from the animal spirit world cross over to the human world and inhabit people and objects upon which they act.

It is important to recognize that most Yup’ik masks were originally created with a specific performance in mind. Each represented a mythological story line that was put into song and presented within a choreographed dance. Visual form, motion, sound and story converged to convey a particular concept.

In this example, the artist has successfully maintained an impressive aesthetic standard while meeting the dictated requirements of properly depicting a complex subject. Through careful composition and execution he has incorporated a series of identities into a single work, beautifully suggesting relationships in both form and character.

One may only imagine the effect of seeing this mask animated in the dimly lit dance house, to the rhythmic beat of the drums.

Bill Wolf, November, 2009

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