An exhibit of native American ceremonial masks opens this weekend at Gilcrease Museum. "Down from the Shimmering Sky" explores two centuries of mask making by the native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. "I would like them to challenge themselves to see or understand, or try to understand more about the meaning and intent and purpose of these objects," said Robert Joseph, GWA WA ENO chief. To native Americans, they are the most sacred of objects. Mask makers carved tribal beliefs into powerful expressions of tradition and meaning.
"Down from the Shimmering Sky" draws from ceremonial collections throughout north America and Europe, dating from the 18th century to the present. The masks reveal their makers' connections to the spirit and natural worlds, often depicting the moon, sun, animals and spirits. "They're brought out on special occasions called potlatches," said Peter Macnair, Gilcrease curator. "It's not only the mask, it's the costume, the performer, and the dancers who ultimately animate these objects in a very wonderful way."
The Vancouver Art Gallery negotiated with leaders of ten tribal nations, who carefully guard the privilege of seeing the objects. Tribal leaders agreed to exhibition for the purpose of educating others about their cultures. Joseph, who was one of those tribal leaders, believes it's even more important to share the meaning behind the masks. "A lot of it has spiritual connotation. We live in a time all over the world where people are seeking a higher spiritual meaning to their existence," he said. "I think ancient cultures and newer cultures all need to accommodate that aspiration."
Joseph explained that his people often spent time in rigorous exile in the wilderness, co-existing with animals and other life forms. The experience, he says, leads to deeper understanding of connections to the natural world, expressed in the color, materials and forms used in the masks. The abundance of their surroundings provided the gift of time to create the legacy of their people. "We gathered all the necessities of life in the summertime and had all of the winter to engage in cultural activities," he said. "To sing and dance and carve and do all these wonderful things that gave meaning and definition to ourselves."
The masks are not only a powerful manifestation of symbolism and meaning.
They also present the extraordinary skill, innovation and artistry of the native peoples.
"They're really technical marvels to see," said Bruce Grenville, museum of anthropology, Vancouver. "That sense of ability and sort of profound understanding of the materials and connection with the materials. Which I guess is something you don't always see. That sense of connecting with the material and where it comes from," he said. "I mean, they live with those trees. So to understand cedar and how it works, you have to live with it almost all your life."
Joseph says in a world of endless complexity, the mask has offered a way for native people to express their connections to the universe. Through masks, he says, we identify our humanity. That is what he hopes others receive when viewing the ceremonial treasures of his ancestors.