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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Coast Salish, Halkomelem
Sxwaixwei Comb
Yew, 6” High, c.1820-1860
Coast Salish, Halkomelem Sxwaixwei Comb
Coast Salish, Halkomelem Sxwaixwei Comb
Coast Salish, Halkomelem Sxwaixwei Comb

This rare comb exhibits a Sxwaixwei, an image that is both powerful and sacred to the Coast Salish people of southwestern British Columbia. The Sxwaixwei was a mythological being said to have risen from a lake, and was the subject of masks that were a central part of regalia of ritual dancers who performed at ceremonial gatherings and cultural events. Their performances discouraged evil spirits and insured that spiritual conditions would be correct for the event.

This comb is very much like a miniature Sxwaixwei dancer's mask, which invariably contained several traditional elements, including the two small bird heads on the top, protruding peg-like eyes and a snout-like nose. The mouth was often shown open, with the lower jaw and the tongue hanging down nearly vertically below the upper mandible. On this comb, the tongue hangs down and overlaps the top of the comb, blending with it smoothly and providing a basis for a banded design.

Typical of Northwest Coast combs from nearly all parts of the coast, the teeth of this Sxwaixwei are fairly small and rather coarse in scale at their bases. The tapered form of each tooth brings it to a thin, diminishing end about two inches from the base of each tooth, giving the overall appearance of delicacy and lightness.

The style of carving seen in this comb indicates an early sculpture, comparable to the earliest surviving nineteenth century Sxwaixwei masks, which are very few in number. The smoothly finished, rounded forms of this comb and an absence of any carved or painted details on the face of the creature, show this to be a predecessor to later Sxwaixwei masks, and suggests a possible timeframe of between 1820 and 1860 for its creation.

Provenance: The Hooper Collection

Exhibited: Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme
Pinacothèque de Paris, 2008