Some 100 years after A.H. Twitchell first collected them, and George Heye separated them, masks 9/3407 and 9/3408 have come together again, this time in Houston.
On May 21, 2014, a few days after viewing the Yup’ik mask representing a caribou at the auction house, Adelaide de Menil committed to purchase it, with the intention of reuniting it with its long-solitary mate, the wolf mask hanging in the Witnesses exhibition. It was then transported to Houston, bringing about the permanent reunion of two very special works of art, created by the same artist, in the same village, at the same time, for the purpose of celebrating one specific dance narrative that now only these masks can remember. Very possibly, the original wearers of these two masks were members of the same family.
An exhibition organized at the Menil Collection, featuring the newly reunited masks, MicroCosmos: Details from the Carpenter Collection of Arctic Art, opened on August 29, 2015. We can now witness these two works of art as an integrated whole. Each mask, complementary left and right halves, share the features of a single creature: each has one nostril, one ear, one eye, half a lower jaw. They are Wolf and Caribou, hunter and prey, an essential life-cycle unity.
Looking at them carefully, considering their form and meaning, we become aware of the interdependence of the two creatures. In the natural environment of central Alaska, they are complementary, yet oppositional. Wolf has one ear, the right, cocked forward in attention. He has one eye, almond-shaped. Caribou’s corresponding left ear is pricked up, listening. Her eye is rounded, ovoid and alert. Both animals have nearly identical red-painted nostrils, their noses topped with arching contour lines, deeply carved, almost forming secondary eyes and eyebrows when seen together. They each have open jaws with matching teeth, curving toward each other, to form a single mouth.
Wolf and Caribou are the left and right halves of a face—perhaps composing a common yua—and two co-existing species that also embody symbolism of the larger Yup’ik universe. Traces of their original paint of earth pigments suggest other dualities: Wolf, a nocturnal creature representative of the night is painted black, dotted with white star-like spots that are echoed in his crown of long feathers, stripped bare except for their starry tips. Caribou, in contrast, is painted red with a broad section of white covering her snout and head, to symbolize the day. Her face is framed by short swan feathers, close to the neck, reinforcing her bright appearance.
They are intertwined spirits, inextricably linked to each other. They are hunter and hunted. Visually, they are left and right; temporally, before and after. As such, they are manifestations of the continuity of time, upon which all life simultaneously depends and cannot escape. Songs and dances also have this temporal quality. There is the silence before, the first percussive sounds, a development of words and rhythms and a story told, then completion and again the absence of sound. What might the song be that these two masks were created to narrate? What dream foretold of them, called Wolf and Caribou into being? Was it their creation myth itself? Could it have been a personal, intimate communiqué between a wolf and a caribou, as they faced each other in a vital moment? Or could the Napaskiagamiut, “people of Napaskiak,” who inhabited them and sang and danced within them, have had other, broader intentions?