Kwakwaka’wakw Mask. Pre-1938. University of Oregon. Museum of Natural and Cultural History, 2-1054 © University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History
Although this mask’s exact origin is unknown, many of the mask’s features are characteristic of Kwakwaka’wakw People, residing on the central British Columbian coast and Vancouver Island. The mask’s color scheme, protruding eyes, exaggerated mouth, and use of discontinuous black lines of varying thickness (called formlines) all point to Kwakwaka’wakw origins. This is a particular type of a Kwakwaka’wakw mask called an Atlakim mask. This mask was likely fiercely guarded, only brought out once a year for dancing around fire at Ts’ēts’a’ēqua, a winter ceremony. As the dancer moved, the mask’s curved, protruding eyes would catch flickering firelight, making the creature come alive. The mask’s striking black, red, and green pigments added to the dramatic impact. However, these masks were destined for destruction—after being danced four times, they were burnt. Perhaps this mask narrowly escaped being devoured by fire, as evidenced by the mask’s singed cheek. The burning and subsequent re-carving of a new mask represented passing of the character and the tradition of carving to the new generation. Compared to most Kwakwaka’wakw art, these masks were hastily crafted and crudely painted, perhaps explaining the visible brush strokes in the paint. The mask’s brilliant red hue likely came from red ochre. The Kwakwaka’wakw people roasted yellow ochre or collected naturally occurring red ochre to procure the pigment. Craftsmen applied the pigment to the red cedar wood with a paintbrush made from porcupine fur.