Together with his wife, Adelaide de Menil, the late Edmund Carpenter assembled one of the world’s finest and most extensive collections of Old Bering Sea Paleo-Eskimo material culture. MicroCosmos is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on this extraordinary assembly, primarily showcasing artifacts from the Old Bering Sea cultures of coastal Alaska and Siberia, ca. 250 BCE–1000 CE. The exhibition celebrates the spirit of Carpenter’s curiosity and reflects his exploration of the animistic universe expressed in these objects that he undertook as part of his investigation of their significance.
Predominantly carved from walrus ivory, the most common material resource in the region, many of the artifacts are manifest in miniature, some only one centimeter tall. Yet their intense diminution allows for powerfully transcendent representations through which the arctic world of intertwined personae comes alive. In the Paleo-Eskimo narrative, humans and animals transform into each other with fluid ease by both spiritual and practical necessity. The finely carved works of art are representations of shamans in flight and mythical beasts in multiple forms. Seals and waterfowl possess human heads, pregnant women have walrus tusks. Curious as these manifestations may seem, they demonstrate a collective cultural awareness and integrated naturalism that is astonishing in its accomplishment and virtuosity.
Along with the presentation of Paleo-Eskimo objects, the exhibition includes two late-19th-century Yup’ik storytelling dance masks. The Yup’ik peoples of coastal Alaska are genetic descendants of the Old Bering Sea cultures, from which many of their masking and dance traditions are believed to have evolved over the course of several thousand years. Many of the dances celebrate seasonal activities, such as hunting or the changing weather, and the masks express characteristic dualities of Yup’ik shamanic metaphors: summer and winter winds, predator and prey, steadfastness and trickery.
Yup’ik peoples often created dance masks in matched oppositional pairs, but few of them remain intact today, especially in museum collections. After being separated approximately 100 years ago, the two masks on view are being reunited in this exhibition at the Menil. One mask represents a wolf, the other a caribou. Perfectly balanced, made by the same carver for the same dance, they are predator and prey, hunter and hunted, inextricable aspects of the same forces upon which arctic life depends, and always has.
MicroCosmos is curated by Sean Mooney, Curator of the Edmund Carpenter Collection.
This exhibition is generously supported by Clare Casademont and Michael Metz, Anne and Bill Stewart, and the City of Houston.