Masks fascinate me. Always have, for as long as I can remember. I appreciate the power in a mask to transform the wearer into something or someone else. But, one of the most powerful applications of a mask is to make the observer believe through the art of storytelling.
For millennia, in many cultures, masks have been used in storytelling rituals; the Noh masks of Japan readily come to mind. The Noh masks are finely detailed and delicately rendered as one finds with virtually all forms of Japanese art and except for a couple of examples, portray humans of one stripe or another. The intricately carved masks of the indigenous peoples of the West Coast of Canada on the other hand speak to the mythology of the various peoples.
Now, this post is not going to delve into the horrific treatment of the First Nations peoples by the various administrative, religious and colonial forces over time. I’m just not qualified for that discussion in several ways. This is a post to highlight an art form that I admire and continues to flourish, in spite of a history of adversity.
Traditionally, masks of the Coastal peoples were used in ceremonies but, as early as the mid-1800’s, masks began to be produced merely as artistic pieces. While many are still being created for ceremonial purposes, there are many excellent indigenous artists producing masks that are primarily artistic interpretations of their cultures. If you’re interested in a bit more on the history of these masks, this article by The Bill Reid Centre at Simon Fraser University is a good primer. If you’re in the Vancouver area, I recommend heading to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia or the Bill Reid Gallery. A bit further afield in Whistler is the very fine Audain Art Museum. If you’re over on Vancouver Island, head to Victoria and check out the Royal BC Museum. All have very fine collections of First Nations art.
The photos included here are from my own collection of pieces so it was easy enough to spend time doing various photo shoots with them. The vintage looking shots were inspired by two things. First, some of the very good tintype artists out there who are renewing interest in that unique style of photography. In this case, I merely applied some fancy filters to the images. Second, actual vintage images of some of the First Nations villages from the 1800’s that I’ve seen in various historical photos and publications. At some point I’d really like to give tintype photography a try but it is quite labourious and requires some nasty chemicals.
Of the artists here, Klatle-Bhi (pronounced Cloth-Bay), Yul Baker and Nusi Ian Reid are still alive and making great art. Sadly, Beau Dick, master carver and storyteller, passed away in 2017.