Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Nunivak Mask

We are pleased that in January 2013 we'll be able display one of the most striking objects in the MCE collection, a mask that we belive comes from the Cup'ig people of Nunivak island in southwestern Alaska.

Winter ceremonial mask, Cup'ig people of Nunivak Island
Permanent Collection: Museum of Culture and Environment
We are not sure of the date of the mask's creation, as it came into the collection of the precursor of the museum many years ago.  We would be very pleased if anyone could provide more insights into this beautiful object.  It appears to be made for the market, and is in good condition.

The mask will be mounted in conjunction with the exhibition "Fashion Statement," curated by artist Anna Hoover, on T-shirts developed by Native Artists protesting Pebble Mine, which threatens the world's largest natural salmon fishery in Alaska's Bristol Bay.  We'll display it adjacent to Salmon Woman, a magnificent large cedar sculpture by Anna's father, the late Aleut/Unangan artist John Hoover, which will be on loan to the Museum for Winter 2013.

As you can see in the attached image, the face mask is circled by two concentric rings, At least thirteen feathers project outwards.At  the ends of the feathers are attached various small wooden elements, including many salmon, a bird, an otter, a human hand, and a human leg. Associated with the mask is a loose fish tail, which may also have been on a feather, or perhaps attached directly to a small hole to the right of the mask's mouth.

My draft signage for the mask is as follows, informed by Ann Fienup-Riordan's excelllent book, "Agayuliyararput Our Way of Making Prayer: The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks (University of Washington Press, 1996) and commentary by Aron Crowell of the Arctic Studies Center-Anchorage. I have also relied on the very helpful essay on Yup'ik and Cu'pig masks by John Oscar:

Draft label:

Making the Invisible, Visible

Created by an indigenous Cup’ig (Yup’ik)  artist of Nunivak island, Alaska, this mask helps illustrate the profound importance of salmon, otter, birds, and the broader web of life for the indigenous peoples of maritime Alaska. 

Yup'ik masks were originally designed by shamans and danced in winter ceremonies as an act of prayer, to ask that the spirits of animals which had been fished or hunted would reincarnate themselves and return in spring to feed the human community.  Each ring encircling the mask is known as ellanguaq (“pretend universe”) and represents different levels or dimensions of the universe, including sea and sky worlds where animal spirit beings dwell.  Blue pigment, as seen on the animal figures, the small carved leg, and the beard of the face mask indicates a being’s spirit status; human beings were usually marked with red pigment. 

Through such masks and winter dance ceremonies the invisible world of the spirits is made visible, and passages are opened between the domain of human beings and the domains of spiritual beings. 

 Traditionally, Yup’ik masks were discarded after use in sacred ceremonies. Some masks were acquired by traders and collectors, and found their way into museum collections. We believe this mask was created for sale to the market. We are still seeking the identity of the artist who created this remarkable work.

1 comment:

  1. I have a mask signed by a Johnny M. Smith, Nunivak Island 1992. Any information you can share with me about this artist. The mask sold for $950 at time of purchase and I have no idea when that was.