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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Actic
Inuit or Inupiat
Anthropomorphic Face Mask
Wood & Pigment, 12" Height, c.1870 - 1880

This adult-sized mask belies several hallmarks of imitative naturalism, including the delicately painted pigment lines emanating from mouth to chin. These lines closely resemble the patterns of typical facial tattoos worn by Inu elders, particularly women, from ancient times all the way up to the 20th century.

Evidence of such facial tattooing among Paleo-Eskimo and their modern Inu relatives has been consistently found in burial sites throughout the Arctic world, from Siberia to Greenland, and the practice has been assumed common throughout ancient Europe from archaeological evidence in several Paleolithic and Neolithic sites. With the practice of facial tattooing resurgent in contemporary life, presumably divorced from the context of ancient ritual and meaning, one can suppose that body decoration and patterning must have irrepressibly deep roots in the human psyche. Nonetheless, in village life, and in the form of a mask, facial tattoos become specific and hierarchical.

Given that mask-wearing in the Arctic villages was typically performative, as it is in most of the world, we can imagine that this mask may have represented a specific female village elder, probably an important ancestor remembered through generations. This mask might have been worn during events in which the spirit of that ancestor was being called upon for guidance. It is notable that the tattoo pattern depicted has been reduced to simple lines emerging from the mouth, and that this mouth is pursed as if in mid-speech. Perhaps, then, the tattoo lines represent both the ancestor and the words of wisdom being spoken. Once more, decoration and purpose may be merged many times, through simple gestures and forms, resonant with transformation.

While it is impossible to know, it is imaginable that this mask could have been worn during a traditional Inuit naming ceremony, performed during childbirth, where the names of ancestors are repeatedly spoken aloud by a female elder acting as midwife, until one name coincides with the emergence of the child.