Eskimo Mask, Alaska

During long winters in the Arctic, Eskimo communities enjoyed feasts and performed masked dances to maintain harmony between the human, animal, and supernatural worlds. Masks were employed by a shaman (angalkuq), the only member of the community with sufficient power to control the spirits of nature. Masks enabled them to communicate with the spirits and understand their needs, and to give recommendations on how to appease them. Costumed dancers performed singly or in pairs, portraying a range of spirit beings and animal helpers. Humorous masks also appeared at times, including caricatures of local people meant to entertain the audience.

In Yup’ik culture, masks are the result of the efforts of more than one person. The angalkuq, with their exclusive insight on the wishes of the spirits, explained to the carvers – who were women as well as men – how to make the masks. After the arrival of Christian evangelization in Yup’ik territory, mask traditions waned but were never entirely forgotten.

The mask offered here is of an anthropomorphic type, with a broad, theatrical character and vigorous composition that make an immediate impression on the viewer. The wide ears, sharply jutting brow ridge, steeply downturned eyes, and highly expressive nose and mouth give abundant personality to this mask. It is blackened over the extent of the forehead and around the mouth, bringing focus to the eyes. Blue beads are attached at each ear, at the top of the head, and at the chin. The unusual shape of the mouth is of special interest: with its combined circle-and-crescent design, the mask seems to hold two simultaneous expressions. For another example with similar treatment of the mouth, identified as a Kuskokwin walrus spirit mask, see Amez, Daniele (ed.). Masques Eskimo D’Alaska. Editions Amez, 1991, pg. 208.

Some vertical cracks to the mask as can be seen in the images. Small restoration to base of left nostril.

19th century
Wood, glass beads, pigments
Height: 11 ¾ in; Width 11 in

Possibly Walter Koerner (1888 - 1995) Collection
Sotheby’s Important American Indian Art December 2, 1998 Lot 475
Private Collection, USA

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