Portland Art Museum

Portland, OR




Down From the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast


Down From the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast, the largest and most complete exhibition ever mounted of ceremonial masks produced by Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, makes its United States premiere at the Portland Art Museum from April 10 through July 11, 1999.

Lauded by the New York Times as "magical," "penetrating," and "emotionally intense," this extraordinary exhibition explores two centuries of maskmaking by some of the region' s finest Native American artists. Organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery, the exhibition places historical masks, some from as early as the 18th century, side by side with contemporary masks made by artists exploring the same themes and imagery.

"This exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see these exquisite masks, which are drawn from collections throughout North America and Europe," notes Bill Mercer, Curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum. "To see these masks, historical and contemporary, displayed side by side is to see the perpetuation of artistic traditions through time. This is not the lost art of a lost people, but a living cultural continuum."

Native Americans of this region have produced a rich legacy of carved and painted objects as complex and diverse as the histories of the peoples who produced them. Among these objects the ceremonial mask has long played a vital role in preserving the stories, values, privileges, and status of their owners and makers.

While the names of the earliest artists have been lost, the masks of 20th century and contemporary artists, including Charles Edenshaw, Willie Seaweed, Mungo Martin, Freda Diesing, Robert Davidson, Tony Hunt, Arthur Thompson, Joe David, Tim Paul and others, have become widely recognized for the character and quality of their invention.

Masks are a manifestation of powerful ancestral spirits and are used to make the supernatural world visible. The earliest masks collected in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were often human face masks representing spirits which descend from the heavens and assume human form. It was only after the 1850's that masks depicting animals and supernatural creatures became predominant in collectors closets. These animals and creatures are represented within the four dimensions of the cosmos as perceived by Native Americans of the Northwest Coast, that is, the celestial world, the mortal world, the undersea world and the spirit world.

These five components (the human face, the celestial world, the mortal world, the undersea world, and the spirit world) provide the formal and thematic structure of the exhibition. Historical contemporary masks are shown together so that points of continuity and change can be identified. Issues of aesthetics, masks produced for sale, the continuation of and gradual change informs, response to the market and personal styles are also sub-themes explored throughout the exhibition.

The exhibition was curated by Robert Joseph, a Kwakwaka'wakw Chief and advisor on land claims and Native rights; Peter Macnair, former curator of anthropology at the Royal British Columbia Museum; and Bruce Grenville, senior curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The Presenting Sponsors of Down From the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast are the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and Spirit Mountain Casino. The Major Corporate Sponsor of the exhibition is CBSI (Complete Business Solutions, Inc.).

Patrons of Down From the Shimmering Sky: are Ned and Sis Hayes. Sponsors include American Airlines; the William and Mary Bauman Foundation; Louisiana-Pacific Foundation; NW Natural, ODS Health Plans, and 98.7 KUPL. Additional support comes from PacifiCorp Foundation; PCC Structurals Inc.; Quintana Galleries; William G. Gilmore Foundation, Anne A. Bemi Foundation; H. W. Irwin and D. I. Irwin Foundation; American Express Financial Advisors; and Joe and Barbara Todd.

Background information on Down From the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast has been provided by the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Images from top to bottom (please click on thumbnail images to enlarge them): Heiltsuk, Artist Unknown, Transformation Mask, 1865, 33.0 x 38.0 x 68.5cm, wood, hair, leather and paint; Tsimshian, Artist Unknown,Stone Mask, 19th Century, 22.5 x 24.0 x 18.2cm, stone and paint; Nuxalk, Artist Unknown, Mask Representing Sun, 1870, 160.0cm diameter, wood and paint; Kwakwaka'wakw, Richard Hunt, Mask Representing, Ancestral Sun, 1978, 50.5 x 58.0 x 20.0cm, red cedar, nylon twine, screws and paint; Kwakwaka'wakw, Willie Seaweed, Mask Representing a Speaker, 1930, 28.5 x 19.0 x 14.0cm, yellow cedar and paint

Read more in Resource Library Magazine about the Portland Art Museum

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1999 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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