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ART & ARCHITECTURE

The Stories Behind the Masks

An traveling exhibition from Canada looks at the mythology of creation among native people of the Northwest Coast.

December 19, 1999|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

The concept was under discussion for about three years, but the curators only had about a year to organize the show, Macnair said. "Fortunately, I had left my employ at the Royal British Columbia Museum, and I was freelancing. We were working on a very tight schedule, but by bringing in our First Nations curator, Robert Joseph, we were able to put the exhibition together, borrowing from more than 20 institutional lenders and 30 private lenders.

"About halfway through the preparations, we learned that there was money for a catalog, so we had the additional pressure of photographing and writing text for the publication. It's hard to imagine that so much was accomplished in so little time. It was the goodwill of the lenders and the Native American community that made it possible," he said.

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The curators have combined traditional ethnographic pieces with works made for sale "because these are both legitimate traditions," Macnair said. "We are celebrating the art form and not distinguishing between old and new or between masks made for use or to decorate a room. Some masks made for sale are not hollowed out to fit on the face, but the aesthetic point of view and applied design is consistent."

Nonetheless, the masks are metaphors for ritual power and traditionally created to be worn in ceremonial dances, not hung in an art museum. In his catalog essay, Macnair writes: "Often viewed in shadowed, flickering firelight and rarely in an arrested pose, masks invoke the image of an ancestor, the terror of a monster, the serenity of a celestial orb. The debate on whether or not such works are 'art' obscures their meaning and intent. Mythic history is manifest in the mask. For anyone outside the culture, it is impossible to fully understand the relationship between mythic history as manifest in the mask and its animated presence on the stage of a ceremonial house when a skilled dancer brings life to the mask."

Creating a context that would help visitors understand the meaning of the masks and the excitement of the ceremonies was an enormous challenge, Macnair said. "Our strategy is that we title the first gallery 'The Human Face Divine.' That's a quote from Milton's 'Paradise Lost' by a fur trader describing a masked performance that he had seen in the 1830s. He observed that most of the masks represented the human face. So in the initial gallery we will present faces of people--men, women, the elderly, the young. We hope visitors will engage with them and see their own humanity reflected back from these pieces that are relatively easily comprehended."

Depictions of more complex creatures--including ancestral suns and birds, killer whales and warriors--will appear in subsequent galleries, and most of them will be displayed in glass cases. "But the First Nations people involved as advisors said some of the masks--mostly contemporary pieces of fairly recent manufacture--cannot be put behind glass, so we developed the idea of showing them on a platform," Macnair said. If artists or lenders wanted their masks to be "unencumbered," experts who have danced in the masks placed them on platforms at the proper height and angle, as if they are being worn, he said.

"At first, people at the Vancouver Art Gallery thought this idea was too anthropological," Macnair said. "We agonized over it, until finally I had a flash and said, 'Consider this an installation piece.' "

Whatever it's called, that portion of the exhibition enlivens the gallery space for visitors, he said. "The gasps of the audience coming around the corner [and encountering the masks on the platforms] testify to that."

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"DOWN FROM THE SHIMMERING SKY: MASKS OF THE NORTHWEST COAST," Southwest Museum at LACMA West, 6067 Wilshire Blvd. Dates: Thursday-May 6. Hours: Opening day, 1-6 p.m.; thereafter, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-6 p.m.; Fridays, noon-8 p.m.; Saturdays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Prices: Adults, $10; students ages 6-17 and seniors, $8. Tickets available through Ticketmaster and at the museum. Phone: (323) 933-4510.

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