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Don't Knock Wood

A Celebration in Wood
Canada, Northwest Coast region <br>Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl)</br> Sun Mask, c. 1860 </br>Wood, metal, pigment, cord, and cloth</br> Minneapolis Institute of Arts</br> The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund and purchase through Art Quest 2003
  Canada, Northwest Coast region
Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwakiutl)
Sun Mask, c. 1860
Wood, metal, pigment, cord, and cloth
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund and purchase through Art Quest 2003


Look closely at this wooden sun mask made by a Kwakwaka'wakw (kwak-wak-ya-wak) artist. What about the mask suggests the power of the sun to you?

Masks are an important aspect of celebrations among the Kwakwaka'wakw and other Native American peoples in the Northwest Coast region of North America. This elaborate and expressive mask made over 150 years ago likely belonged to a wealthy, noble family who owned exclusive rights to use it. One of only two sun masks known to scholars today, it probably appeared at potlatches—ceremonies that reinforced the tribe's lineage and social hierarchies. The mask celebrates the sun's role as creator and sustainer of life, an important element in performances that tell the origin story of the Kwakwaka'wakw people.

Abundant Northwest Coast forests provide wood for houses, canoes, storage chests, and more. The many birds and animals that inhabit these forests serve as inspiration for Kwakwaka'wakw masks and objects. The artist carved wood away from the log to create the mask shape and the contours of the facial features. Once the carving was complete, the artist used natural earth pigments to emphasize the expression of the sun.

The features of this Sun Mask are characteristic of Kwakwaka'wakw woodworking today. Bold patterns in green, red, black, and white accentuate the forehead, eyebrows, eyes, nose, and mouth. By combining a human nose and bird beak, the artist reminds viewers of the important connection between humans, animals, and the world of the spirits. The copper sunray attachments on this mask are unusual, as most Kwakwaka'wakw masks are made entirely of wood and pigments. In what ways do the additions of copper, perhaps salvaged from a European or American ship, enhance the impression of the sun's power?

Imagine the copper catching and reflecting the brilliant rays of the sun while the dancer moved around, and raised and lowered his head.

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1. Kachinas are spirits who look over the Hopituh people. This wooden kachina of Pahlik Mana (Butterfly Maiden) celebrates the idea of regeneration through symbolic images, including rain clouds in her headdress and the rectangular design of an ear of corn on her forehead. United States, Hopituh Shi-nu-mu (Hopi), Butterfly Maiden Kachina, 1880-1920, wood, pigments, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Jane and James Emison Endowment for Native American Art
2. Wooden keros, ceremonial vessels used by the Inka peoples, were especially popular during the period of Spanish colonial rule (1533-1821), perhaps because the Spanish had taken most of the precious metals in the region. This kero shows Spanish and Inkan soldiers, Inkan textile designs, and regional plants and animals. South America, Inka (Inca), Kero, 1470-1560, wood, pigment, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund
3. Wooden objects like this model boat survived for centuries, protected from the elements in the tombs of important Egyptians. Ceremoniously buried with other useful objects, the model boat was thought to safely transport the eternal spirit (ka) of the deceased to the next world. Egypt, Model Boat and Figures, Middle Kingdom (22nd-18th century BCE), polychromed wood, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The William Hood Dunwoody Fund


March 2012