Wolf and Caribou: Two Yup’ik Masks

by Sean Mooney
View of wolf mask (far wall, upper left) in Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision, The Menil Collection, Houston

Wolf and Caribou: Two Yup’ik Masks

For about fifteen years, a mask from the Central Yup’ik people of Alaska, hung, out of reach near the ceiling, on a wall crowded with masks, at the Menil Collection. Its open mouth faced down toward the visitors, ready to call, but mute. Like a real wolf in its habitat, this Yup’ik wolf was mysterious, difficult to see, apart as if by choice. From a distance, it seemed dormant, almost asleep. Wolves in nature are like this, sometimes sleeping up to twenty hours a day while preserving their energy between hunts. In its wooden somnambulism, the wolf mask seemed an avatar of stillness. Then, one day, it awakened, as if by accident, or so it seemed to we who had passively taken in its presence. This is the story of that wolf’s new morning. Or, just one half of it.

The wolf hung in an exhibition called Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision that opened in 1999 adjacent to the Menil’s Surrealism galleries. It was placed there by Edmund Carpenter, an anthropologist and media theorist who curated Witnesses as a lesson in artistic osmosis by assembling art, artifacts, and objects that were collected or made by the Surrealists. These artists were especially interested in examples from indigenous cultures that revealed dream worlds, spirit realms, and the unconscious that they themselves explored. Carpenter, who with his wife Adelaide de Menil had collected the wolf mask and placed it and many other native North American artifacts on long-term loan to the museum, had for decades been tracing connections between native art and Surrealists. A number of them—including Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, and André Breton—found Yup’ik and other masks in the 1940s in New York, where many had fled from the European theater of World War II.

In early May 2014, the wolf mask took on a new relevance. On May 5, as curator of the Edmund Carpenter Collection, I received a phone call from the art dealer Jeffrey Myers alerting me to the fact that Sotheby’s auction house had in its possession a mask with marked similarities to ours, and asked us to investigate certain details. That same day, the Menil Collection received a formal inquiry directly from Sotheby’s. They wanted the museum to confirm the provenance of this mask, purportedly representing a wolf (Carpenter called it a wolf-walrus hybrid, and it has also been described as a representation of the summer season). It was well documented that the mask had originally been part of the Twitchell Collection at the Museum of the American Indian (MAI, forerunner of the National Museum of the American Indian, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution), and had been de-accessioned from the MAI in 1945. Myers and Sotheby’s each asked that we inspect and photograph the interior side of the mask to verify what was inscribed there, its former Twitchell/MAI catalogue number. It is 9/3407.

Sotheby’s was offering a Yup’ik mask as part of a sale of Northwest Coast American Indian art on May 21. Excitement was growing because they had discovered (almost accidentally, thanks to Jeffrey Myers’s astute detective work and elephantine memory) that their mask also bore a Twitchell/MAI number, 9/3408. The sequential numbers meant that the two masks had originally been collected by Adams Hollis Twitchell together, and it was immediately apparent that the two masks were a matched pair, representing twin animal spirits. The mask at Sotheby’s appeared to represent a stylized caribou. Even though it has been described as a wolf, the mask in the Witnesses gallery has a marked resemblance, with similar teeth, half–lower jaw, eye, nostril and ear, and a spotted pattern painted across its face. That they are a pair is not surprising, given Yup’ik masking traditions.