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The Kwakiutl people come from the Northwest Coast region of North
America. This area is one of the world's richest natural environments.
It consists of a narrow strip of dense forests less than 150 miles
wide, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, islands, and ocean inlets.
It stretches along the Pacific Ocean from the Alaskan Panhandle
to northern California.
A transformation mask is a large mask with movable parts that can
be opened and closed. These complex masks are worn by Kwakiutl dancers
in special ceremonies. This transformation mask was made by Richard
Hunt, a 20th-century Kwakiutl artist. While this particular mask
was made for sale, Hunt made a similar mask for a family dance at
a winter potlatch and wears it himself while
participating in the ceremonies.
The use of transformation masks is rooted in ancient Kwakiutl
traditions. According to Kwakiutl creation stories, there was once
a time when birds, fish, animals and humans differed only in skin
covering and had the ability to transform themselves at will. All
living beings were unified and animals could take on human form,
just as humans could become animals, birds, fish, and mythical creatures.
According to Kwakiutl belief, when dancers are wearing these masks,
they are transformed into the spirits represented on the mask.
At the beginning of the dance, this mask would be closed, showing
the image of the raven that is represented on the outside of the mask.
Raven is a central character in Northwest Coast stories. He is believed
to be the creator of the physical world and the bringer of light.
Raven has supernatural powers, and is also a "trickster" who gets
what he wants by playing mischievous tricks on others, changing his
shape at will.
Transformation Mask (closed)
During key moments of the dance the dancer pulls hidden strings
to open the mask, revealing the carved images inside of a human
face flanked by a two-headed serpent (see above).
The serpent is called Sisuitl (SEE-shoe) and is associated with
the protection of warriors. Sisuitl is often represented with a
human head between two serpent heads, as it is here. Together the
images on the mask refer to the transformations of human to raven,
raven to human, human to Sisuitl, and Sisuitl to human.
Raven and Sisuitl also are personally significant to Hunt. Raven
is the special animal and main crest of his
father's clan. Sisuitl is the special animal and main crest of his
mother's clan. Worn at family dances, a mask like this one represents
Hunt's family history by showing his ancestry.
bold designs and forms used on this mask are distinctive of the
Northwest Coast style of decoration. The painted images on this
mask use abstract designs to represent animal
and human images. The artist created a complex design using two
basic shapes--the ovoid and the U-form.
Hunt uses traditional Kwakiutl techniques when carving and painting
masks. This mask is made from red cedar, a soft wood favored by
Kwakiutl artists for its clear and even grain. Hunt used traditional
hand tools, andadheres to traditional colors: black, red-brown,
and green. Before commercial paints were available, Kwakiutl artists
used natural earth pigments, such as red ochre, charcoal, and blue-green
clay. Hunt, however, prefers to use acrylic paints because they
dry more quickly.
that looks as if it contains little or no recognizable or realistic
forms from the physical world. Focus on formal elements such as
colors, lines, or shapes. Artists often "abstract" objects by changing,
simplifying, or exaggerating what they see.
crest--A symbol representing
families or clans, groups of people who share the same ansestors.
design element used in Northwest--Art that looks
as if it contains little or no recognizable or realistic forms from
the physical world. Focus on formal elements such as colors, lines,
or shapes. Artists often "abstract" objects by changing, simplifying,
or exaggerating what they see. Coast Indian art, described as a
rounded rectangle, and angular oval, or an eggshape.
important ceremony of the Northwest Coast Indians in which the person
hosting the potlatch gives away his or her possessions. It is a
way for people to share their wealth with the community, to strengthen
their leadership, and to earn the respect of others.
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