Kwakwaka'wakw Raven Mask, British Columbia, Canada
- wood, pigment
Arthur Cohen & Elaine Lustig Cohen, New York, acquired from the above in 1962
Stephen C. Brown
Raven masks of this type are one of a group of three, and sometimes four, traditional associates of Hamatsa dancers and their empowering spirit Baxbakwalanuksiwey, the Cannibal at the North End of the World. The performance of the Hamatsa dancer is made up of several parts, each one symbolic of the taming of the dancer by removal of the man-eating spirit that contains him. The other traditional beings that accompany the Raven mask are the Crooked Beak, the Huxhukw, and in some cases the Moogamhl, or Four-Face mask, which incorporates the other three creatures in one mask. Other variants or combinations of the three primary mask types can also appear with them in the traditions of different family lineages. Masked dancers appear in between two parts of the Hamatsa performance, their presence intended to calm and appease the man-eating spirit that has captured the soul of the Hamatsa.
Willie Seaweed (c. 1873-1967) was an outstanding and prolific traditional artist of the Kwakwaka'wakw First Nation. His surname is an English spelling of the chief’s name, Sewidi, which means 'paddling owner', or metaphorically 'to whom everyone paddles', which indicates the status of the chief as an important person to whom other people travel. He made dozens of masks and other items of ceremonial regalia from his home in Blunden Harbour, a remote village on the British Columbia mainland opposite the north end of Vancouver Island. His son, Joe, was also a talented artist who often worked in tandem with his father. The heads of family lineages would commission an artist to produce an original set of masks when their eldest son was to be initiated into the Hamatsa society. Willie Seaweed, also known by one of his traditional names that translates as 'Smoky-Top', would carve and paint a set of the man-eating bird monsters according to the ceremonial privileges of the commissioning family. In his later years, Seaweed lived in the cultural hub of Alert Bay, where he was an invaluable member of the older generation who inspired the revitalization of Kwakwaka'wakw culture that began during his time.
Willie Seaweed's carving style was founded on the traditional work of his predecessors in Blunden Harbour, who as a group were recognized for their original and sometimes flamboyant interpretations of traditional imagery. Seaweed developed his own unique style over many decades, beginning in the late nineteenth century and evolving well into the 1950s. His highly refined style can readily be picked out from among the work of his peers, and has been one of the primary inspirations for contemporary Kwakwaka'wakw artists who emulate and further expand upon his body of work.