Yup’ik Masks

Archives | Alaska

Yup’ik Masks

Alaska

Pair of Yup’ik finger masks (Eskimo)
Kuskokwim delta, Alaska

Wood, caribou fur, pigments
Early 20th century
Height : 5 ¼ in. (13 cm)

Collected by Rev. Augustus Martin in Kwigillingok, Alaska circa 1926-1935
Ex Jeffrey Myers, New York, acquired in 2005
Ex private collection, Europe

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This rare pair of dance fans (finger masks) in carved wood rimmed with caribou fur feature a geometric décor of concentric circles with traces of green and red pigments.

These dance fans were collected between 1926 and 1935 in Alaska by Reverend Augustus Martin. He was a schoolteacher at the Moravian mission of Kwigillingok village located at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, about 100 kilometers south of the town of Bethel, Alaska.

The concentric circles surrounding the mask illustrate the parallel worlds that the shaman is able to visit while in a trance. The motif of concentric circles is known as “ellam iinga” in Yup’ik language menaing the “eye of the universe” or the “eye of awareness”.
The symbol of “ellam iinga” is described by Ann Fiennup Riordan in “Boundaries and Passages: Rule and Ritual in Yup'ik Eskimo Oral Tradition” (University of Oklahoma Press‬, ‪1995, p. 265)‬:‬‬‬‬‬‬
“Yup’ik cosmology can be schematically depicted in successive circles, each one simultaneously closed and enclosing. This cosmological circle is a recurrent theme in both social and ceremonial activity and paraphernalia. The circle-and-dot motif is designated “ellam iinga”, literally the “eye of the universe or awareness”. The use of this decorative motif is associated with both spiritual vision and the creation of a pathway between the human and spirit worlds.
In cross section, the spirit world can be seen to enclose the human world. The Yupiit annually enacted their ceremonial cycle in part to travel distance between domains that daily life kept rigorously separated. The image of circling the center was more than a static idea, it was an activity. If successful, ritual circuits ella maliggluku (“following the universe”, east to west) had the power to recreate the world anew. To perform this creative transformation, the normal relationships between humans and animals, men and women, and the human and spirit worlds were alternately exaggerated, reversed and inverted.”
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