Birdman shamanic mask
British Columbia, Northwest Coast, Canada
Carved wood, pigments, hide and nails
Height: 16 ¼ in. (41 cm)
Ex collection Heye Foundation, National Museum of the American Indian, inv. 20/7615
Acquired by the museum in 1945
Ex collection Everett Rassiga, New York
Acquired by exchange with the Heye Foundation in February 1969
Ex collection Merton D. Simpson, New York
Ex collection Martin & Faith-Dorian Wright, New York since 1969
Grand Palais Ephémère, Paris
26 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2021
Northwest Coast masks manifest shamanic transformation, usually an animal changing into an ancestor or one animal becoming another.
This mask, when presented wide open, reveals a human face, but when the two side pieces are closed, it forms the head of bird of prey. A ceremonial dancer could pull on its strings at the appropriate moment to re-enact the story of a clan ancestor transforming from animal to human.
As the artist Bill Reid suggested (see Form and Freedom: A Dialogue on Northwest Coast Indian Art, 1975), « what is shown in these decorative motifs and sculptures is not the different stages in the transformation of beings, but the propensity of all beings (human or animal) to incarnate their own metamorphoses ».
The Nuu-chah-nulth people are from the western side of Vancouver Island on the Pacific Northwest Coast. When Captain James Cook first encountered Nuu-chah-nulth villagers at Yuquot during his Third Voyage in 1778, he heard a local expression, nuutka (meaning « to circle around »). He misinterpreted this term as the First Nation's name for the inlet (still known today as Nootka Sound). « Nootka » was subsequently also applied to the indigenous inhabitants of the area until the name was finally corrected to Nuu-chah-nulth.
This exceptional transformation mask, formerly in the collections of the Heye Foundation (Museum of the American Indian) in New York had remained in the celebrated collection of Faith-Dorian and Martin Wright since February 1969.
It is redolent with a supernatural power and poetry.