Short Features

From the Collection, Art and Ideas

Two Yup'ik Masks at Home and Abroad

Central Yup’ik peoples. Wolf Mask (left) and Caribou Mask, late 19th century. Alaska, Napaskiak. Wood, feathers, and pigment, 17½ x 9½ x 6⅜ inches (44.5 x 24.1 x 16.2 cm) and 20 x 14 x 10 inches (50.1 x 35.6 x 25.4 cm). Collection of Adelaide de Menil and Edmund Carpenter. Photo: Sean Mooney

Edmund S. Carpenter was an anthropologist and media theorist who helped found the field of visual anthropology. He was also an astute collector of works by Indigenous artists. This followed life-changing experiences during Carpenter’s years of field work in the Arctic and his teaching and working with Marshall McLuhan during the 1950s (much of which was concerned with differences between oral and literate cultures). Carpenter conceived and installed the eye-opening and category-challenging installation in the Menil’s permanent collection galleries called Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision, a critically and culturally astute cabinet of wonders.

The Menil exhibition MicroCosmos: Details from the Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art (August 2015–February 2016) displays much of the Old Bering Sea material he collected, and also includes two Yup’ik masks, one of which, a wolf, Carpenter included in the original 1999 installation of Witnesses. Here’s what he had to say in a book of 1973 about then-standard practices of museum display of such objects (still called “primitive”) compared with how they are seen in their native context.

I think a great deal of preliterate art is designed by artists who mute sight and that this art is viewed by audiences who perceive it in semidarkness or through half-closed eyes. Native house interiors are often dark. Ceremonies outside are frequently held at night by firelight. Costumed performers, which may include just about everyone, are generally masked, with restricted vision, and even when their faces aren’t covered, they frequently lower their eyelids, even close their eyes.

When we put primitive art on museum display, isolated, on a pedestal, against a white background, under intense light, we violate the intention of the maker & create an effect far removed from the original.(1)

You can see in the two photographs here different installations of the wolf mask: the photograph to the right shows it in Witnesses (on the wall at the upper left), and in the photograph above this text, the wolf mask hangs beside the caribou mask with which it forms a pair, long separated and displayed together for the first time in a museum in the MicroCosmos exhibition.

You can find out more about these masks in Wolf and Caribou: Two Yup'ik Masks.

Online Features

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Wolf and Caribou: Two Yup’ik Masks
by Sean Mooney

Related exhibitions

Aug 29, 2015 – Feb 21, 2016
Main Building
MicroCosmos / Details from the Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art