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Northwest Coast Tribes

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Northwest Coast Tribal Masks

This paper describes the Sea Bear Transformation Mask, created by Don Svanvik in 2000, and how it reflects Northwest Coast Indian art and culture, specific to the Kwakiutl tribe. A transformation mask is a large mask with hinged shutters that, when open, reveal another mask. Audrey and Alan Bleviss gave this mask to the Montclair Art Museum in 2005. The medium consists of red cedar, cedar bark, copper, pigment, and string. In the Montclair Art Museum, the mask is displayed in its open form.

The inside of the mask shows a man sitting with his legs bent in front of him while his arms are open and stretched to his sides. His facial features consist of sharp cheekbones, a wide triangular nose, a goat-t, a thin mustache, and thick dark eyebrows. The subject’s facial hair is made up of black pigment. His eyes are peering up and his thick red lips are in a whistling position with a little tube in its mouth with three strings attached to it- one on both sides and one on the bottom. The strings on his left and right attach from his mouth to his arms. The bottom string attaches to the middle of his legs, just below the knees. It looks as though there is a harness or support cushion of some sort around the figure’s neck but this is not clear. Perhaps it functions as a filler so there is not a lot of empty space (www.freespiritgallery.ca).

The subject does not accurately depict the human anatomy. In fact, while studying this figure, one may notice that geometric shapes make up many of the limbs. For example, the artist uses ovals to represent the palm of the hands, the shoulders and the knees. The man’s chest is in the form of squares with rounded edges and with perfect little white circles as nipples. This oval-like shape is often called an ovoid. The ovoid that make up the palms, chest, and knees are open allowing the natural color of the red cedar to show through. Much of the inside of the mask is the color of red cedar. The ovals that make up the shoulder joints are filled in with red pigment. The formline that outlines the entire body is black and varies in thickness. The formline is thick under the feet and around the palms of the hands. The formline around the chest and knees is a bit thicker and is red. (www.freespiritgallery.ca)

The artist made the arms and legs transparent so the viewer is able to see the subject’s skeleton. In the middle of each arm are two spikes, one on top and one on the bottom, which represents the man’s elbows. The bones of the arms and legs are tinted a slightly darker color looking almost gray. Long strips of cedar bark that are attached to the outside of the mask can be seen under the arms when the mask is open. While still open, cedar bark bound together is seen on top of where the arms are placed, on both sides of the figure’s head. The three strings coming from the figure’s mouth allow the mask to close, allowing it to transform and take the shape of a different figure.

The transformation mask in its closed position takes on an entirely new character. This mask is supposed to depict a sea bear; however, its features closely resemble that of a dragon. The subject’s teeth are large and look fierce. It has two large round nostrils and huge eyes. The cedar bark makes the subject look like it has a lion’s mane. With its mouth open, the legs of the inside subject can be seen on the bottom of the mouth. The subject’s nostrils, teeth, and eyes are on the other side of the wings where the inner subject’s arms were. It is very interesting because when the mask is closed, the viewer see little to none of the natural color of the red cedar. The outside subject contains mostly red and black, which are the traditional colors in Northwest Indian art. The mask also has a large amount of white and green, which are often recognized as tertiary colors, mostly used to fill in empty spaces or for design purposes. (www.freespiritgallery.ca)

Throughout history, societies have defined and transformed themselves through their art. When looking at works of art today, a person sees not only the work of art itself, but also the world from which it came from. The same is true for this transformation mask, which reflects the works of art and beliefs of the Northwest Coast Tribes.

Almost all artwork of the Northwest Coast Tribes has a story behind it. This mask is about a young boy named Alikwamae who was successful and well known among the people in his village. He was orphaned as a child and was therefore sent to live with his jealous uncle who one day abused him in hopes that he would die. He was very weak when he woke up but he found a mouse who took him to an Undersea Kingdom where he met the Chief of the Undersea Kingdom, Kumugwe. Alikwamae wanted to help his people so Kumugwe gave him a power that would allow him to transform into a sea bear. Alikwamae went back

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