Spirit Faces: Contemporary Native American Masks from the Northwest Coast by Gary WyattThese breathtakingly beautiful and powerful masks depict creatures (such as Eagle or Killer Whale), natural elements and forces (such as Moon or Weather), humans, and supernatural beings (such as Thunderbird or the Chief of the Undersea). Masks are an important part of ceremonlal life on the Northwest Coast; they make the supernatural world visible and bring it to life in dance dramas performed at feasts and potlatches, or at winter ceremonies held by secret societies. Some masks embody mythology or history. Others depict shamanic experiences, or are portrait masks that represent personal experience. The most elaborate are transformation masks, which are used to display the transition from one form to another, such as Wolf to Human. At the high point of the dance, the dancer will open the outer mask to reveal another one inside.
The introduction by Gary Wyatt outlines the place of art inside Northwest Coast societies and the place of Northwest Coast art in the outside art world. He also explains the importance, meaning and ceremonial use of masks. Each mask is accompanied by the artists own words describing its creation and meaning.
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Indian or Native American masks were made for ceremonies, decoration, war rituals, shaman rituals, rituals initiating young man into the tribe, in healing rituals, in entertainment, given as gifts and spiritual rituals. Masks could be made for a ceremony where one chief of one tribe gives gifts to a chief from another tribe.
Native American Masks
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The use of Native American masks date back to ancient times. The masks were so popular that certain tribesmen worked solely to create different masks. The masks held importance in each tribe because they were worn for different types of celebrations and events.
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The essential irony of most any mask is that it doesn't actually conceal its wearer from the world, but instead expresses both their own inner self and the culture from which they come sometimes better than their bare face ever could. While that may be less true today -- in the age of pop-up Halloween shops pushing the same few masks based on whatever, say, Disney property is hot at the moment -- it was certainly true of the Native Americans of the early 20th century. From the Navajo to the Koskimo to the Kwakiutl and beyond, native tribes across the Americas placed great social and cultural importance on masks, using them in storytelling, dances, spiritual ceremonies and the like. Whatever their purpose, these masks are also of course handcrafted works of art by turns gorgeous and terrifying -- but always visually arresting. Thankfully, photographer and ethnologist Edward Curtis was on hand to capture images of countless Native Americans wearing these traditional masks throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, just as U. View some of Curtis' photos of Native American masks along with minimally edited versions of his original captions above. Fascinated by these Native American masks?