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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Anthropomorphic Face
Wood & Pigment, 8 ½” Height, c.1870 -1880
Yup'ik Anthrompomorphic Face

Much can be said about the famous ceremonial masks of the Yup’ik, particularly the elaborate composite pieces which were collected in Bethel, Alaska by A. H. Twitchell in the early 20th century, and later discovered by the Surrealist artists in New York in the 1940’s.

This intimate mask bears little resemblance to those flamboyant examples, with their magical choreography of animals, birds, humans and spirits, all inhabiting the same mask, as if acting out whole narratives of stories in four dimensions (which indeed, they do). Instead, this simple mask seems more inclined to speak with its Inupiat cousins, albeit under the guise of classically formal stylizations known from the Yup’ik carver’s vocabulary.

Its perfect forehead, arched eyebrows and seamlessly convex cheeks and chin seem abstractions borrowed from Brancusi (more correctly, it would have been the other way around, of course). The cavities of the mask’s eyes, comma-shaped nostrils, and mouth are textbook cutouts known to every Yup’ik artist. Yet, here we see a mask that is personal, like a portrait, and of a date somewhat older than those enormous Kuskokwim pieces that so enchanted Europeans. In this, it shares the specific nature of the Inupiat masks, which too could be taken from individual faces, naturalistic and human. It is a beautiful example of how human and spirit can be seen as inseparable in the arctic universe.

While Inupiat masks are presumed to have had a performative function in shamanic practice, and likely a very specific one, Yup’ik masks have been well documented as belonging to a complex troupe of characters, utilized in wide varieties of storytelling dances. Often masks were composed for the sole purpose of a single story, acting out a narrative invented for one occasion, then discarded afterwards, like theater costumes. While they must have followed deep traditions, within them there was infinite freedom and invention. In seeing Yup’ik masks from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we witness a historic cusp, where a native village expresses itself through an ancient practice, but one which was about to be obliterated. The masks collected by Twitchell and others were made for perhaps some of the last native dance festivals in their original contexts.