Art of the Tribal Surrealists
Yup’ik Masks Dance ceremonyWhen a Sharman had conceived an idea for a mask and composed a song for it he would then commission a carver to make a mask. The song and dance practiced while the mask was being carved. The song dance and mask the Sharman created were a form of prayer. The masked dance was a way of honoring spirits and beseeching them to ensure the presence of game animals. Many of the masks have animal elements that represent the coveted game. Other masks represent the spirits summoned, nature elements or animal that will help game prosper. It was a form of hunting magic where magic is any religious belief that does not align with Christianity. The lyrics of the Sharmans song would name the desired animal and the dance and masks ensure that prey would be plentiful. Masks song dance and ceremony were an essential part of Agayu religious beliefs.
Social aspects of Yup’ik masksMaking masks and participating in performances was also important for forging social bonds. It bought together distant communities helping solidify relationships. Reciprocal dances left different villages indebted to repay the favor. The performances were also a time of transmitting knowledge of the spirit world to the younger generation. Spirit beings were not only people, but also animals, and elements of the environment, and sometimes combinations of both. It was an opportunity for Sharman and village chiefs to exchange knowledge During ceremonies, masks transformed the individual wearing it into that spirit. Masks were not worn to pretend to be a spirit but so the dancer could become that spirit. That spirit would then ensure plentiful game in spring. This element of transformation is often reflected in the appearance of the masks themselves. Many masks combine animal and spirit and human elements.
Yup’ik masks and SurrealismThe Yup’ik ceased mask-making in the 1920s, after missionaries converted them into Christians. While much of Christian society disregarded the Yup’ik as heathens, the Surrealists revered the objects they’d produced. Often, they used them as inspiration in their own practices. According to scholar Marie Mauzé, Yup’ik masks became available in Europe around 1935. Art dealer Charles Raton organized an exhibition of objects from New York’s Museum of the American Indian. The most graphic representation of this artistic influence is the surrealist map of the world.
Joan Miró: Sans titre
(Femme en révolte), 1938
Joan Miró, Personnage dans la nuit, 1944
Francis Picabia, Monstre, 1946
Yup’ik MasksThis article just covers some examples, so I hope you can appreciate the vast variety of Yup’ik masks. The art from this region is is some of the most bizarre and wonderful anywhere on earth Further reading should include The living tradition of Yup’ik masks and Agayuliyararput : Our way of making prayer If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy New Guinea Masks Sepik masks or Aboriginal sculpture
All images in this article are for educational purposes only.
This site may contain copyrighted material the use of which was not specified by the copyright owner.