Masks of the human face that emphasize the naturalistic qualities of the subject are often referred to as portrait masks. Some of these masks are so particular in detail that they appear to represent specific individuals, while others strike a balance between naturalism and traditional stylization in the manner of their tribe of origin. This finely finished mask leans more toward the latter description, and yet it does project a portraitlike quality in its human representation. When seen in a firelit tribal house, held by a performer in ceremonial garb, it must indeed have conveyed a remarkably lifelike image.
In overall form and a number of details, the mask most directly suggests a Haida origin. Its straight profile and long, flat-bottomed nose serve to indicate the work of a Haida carver, as does the ovoid form of the eyesockets and their relationship to the rounded cheeks and prominent cheekbones. The depiction of a wooden labret or lip plug, as seen here, may be more common in Haida masks than from any other Northwest Coast group, but there are numerous examples from other northern peoples as well. Similarly, the size and form of the ears, the shape and thickness of the eyebrows, the parted form of the hair, and the sculpture of the lips and mouth area also combine to suggest, but are not unique to, Haida sculptural styles.
The shape of the forehead and the sculpture of the mouth and labret area truly emphasize the naturalistic intent of the carver, while the stylized characteristics visible in this mask include the eye and eyesocket forms, the definition of the red nostril flares, and the form of the ears.
The painted features of the mask appear to have been applied using traditional salmon-egg binder paints, incorporating red ochre and possibly magnetite black as pigments. The red color of the eyebrows is unusual, and may refer to some specific identity in the tradition of the owner's lineage. Other painted forms on the mask are composed as swaths or spontaneous movements of black across the surface, much like some of the face paintings that were applied to ritual performers. The upper eyesocket and eyebrow area for example has a wide swath of black that crosses the sculptural forms from temple to temple, and short parallel bars of black paint decorate the cheekbone bulges. Small areas of black paint appear as though they may have been later applications, such as on the proper left temple and upper ridge of the nose, though even these must have been applied a very long time ago, most likely in the late nineteenth century. Other fine line patterns are painted in red, such as on the proper right temple area, just in front of the ear. The precise meaning of this red pattern is not known, but it may also refer to traditional face painting designs. The ears themselves are an interesting form, a balanced cross between the representation of very naturalistic folds and valleys, and a stylized type of symmetrical pattern such as can be seen on many other human face masks.
The wooden labret was a tradition reserved for high-ranking women of northern Northwest Coast tribes. They began as small wood or metal pins inserted through the lower lips of young girls from noble families, and were expanded in size as the children grew. By the time of middle age, some women had labrets of the size seen in this mask. Certain even larger examples survive in ethnographic collections, and some labrets were inlaid with pieces of abalone shell. Most, however, were of simple polished hardwood, and appeared much like the one seen here. By the time that photographers arrived in the region in the 1870s, they recorded only a few older women that still wore the cumbersome accoutrement.
The surface of this mask exhibits a great deal of age and sufficient evidence of use to suggest that it was employed in a ceremonial context over a considerable span of time. Although there are no sight holes in or near the eyes, and there are no holes in the edges of the mask that would be remnants of harness mountings, there are clear signs of repeated handling in the holding of the mask to the face of a performer. Not all Northwest Coast masks were harnessed to the face, and many were merely held up in front of the performer's face for the few moments during the ceremony when it would have been shown. The even smoothness of the inside hollowing of the mask speaks of a skilled carver with sophisticated traditional tools, and the evident wear on the rear of the mask again points to extended use over a long period of time. Some portrait masks that are now in museum collections appear not to have been used, and are assumed to have been made for direct exchange with Euro-American fur traders. This one, however, shows ample evidence of use to indicate this was not the motive for the creation of this mask.
Such a mask may have been used to represent a particular historical figure in a clan or family lineage, or it may have represented a spirit image that figured in the mythological origins of a clan. Dramatizations of such stories at wintertime feasts and potlatches publicly reiterated the history of a clan and reinforced their social status as owners of such assets as resource gathering sites or ceremonial traditions and the names and rankings associated with them.
Steven C. Brown
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