1. Dancers with hamatsa masks, photo by Edward S. Curtis, 1914

"These two masked performers in the Winter Dance represent huge, mythical birds. Kotsuis (the Nakoaktok equivalent of the Qagyuhl Kaloqutsuis) and Hohhuq are servitors in the house of the man-eating monster Pahpaqalanohsiwi. The mandibles of these tremendous wooden masks are controlled by strings." 

I found myself, since my trip to Montreal, completely drawn to transformation masks although it is more a tradition from the west coast. I read recently a little exhibition catalogue, a gift from my husband. In this little book there is a small article by Claude Levi-Strauss: Amérique du Nord et Amérique du Sud in which he explains some of the symbolic of the masks in North and South America.

He writes that in all of the regions of the New World you can find mask making. But there is this notable difference between North and South that in the South the tribes preferred the complete mask-costume whereas in the North they used what he call the “true mask”. True mask as only the face is represented.

I will pass the part about South America, but if you can read French, here is a copy of the article.

In Northern America, Levi-Strauss distinguished three area were you can find mask making: East with the Iroquois, North-West of the pacific coast (British Colombia and Alaska) and South-East (New Mexico and Arizona) with the Pueblo, Navaho and Apache.

In the North of the Pacific coast you can find the most complicated masks, they often portray several characters in one, they can move, transform from one face to another. This is possible thanks to complicated mechanisms: ropes, straps and hinges. 


2. Namgis (Native American). Thunderbird Transformation Mask, 19th century. The Thunderbird is believed to be an Ancestral Sky Being of the Namgis clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw, who say that when this bird ruffles its feathers, it causes thunder and when it blinks its eyes, lightning flashes.

3. Three stages of a Transformation mask: Bullhead fish, Raven and Human face, Kwakwaka’wakw, collected in 1901 - American Museum of Natural History, New-York 

Masks were worn in profane and religious feasts and ceremonies. The fact that I love and that Lei-Strauss explain is that in the profane feasts the noblemen and women would wear masks to remind the other that they were descendant of the gods. (I can imagine how fascinating it must have been, walking almost among gods…)

4. Bella Coola Indians wearing ceremonial blankets and "Crooked Beak of Heaven" masks ca. 1886] (Creation) Name of creator Matthews, James Skitt, Major.

5. Woman with mask, wearing a chilkat blanket - source: wikipedia


6. Showing of masks at Kwakwaka’wakw potlatch - source: wikipedia


7. Kwakwaka’wakw Dance Costume - photo by Edward S. Curtis

Masks are truly living artefacts and so I wanted to share here a little film in which you can see a reconstitution of a ceremony. 
This film made my fascination for masks even more significant. And there is these words by Salish educator Shane Pointe that stuck in my mind: “Now today you can go downtown and you can go to any of the galleries and you can walk in there and you can look at their walls and you can say “I want that mask, I want that mask” and you put dollars for that mask. But masks to my people, to my mom’s people, to my dad’s people… those weren’t just things to be hanging on the walls and things that you could purchase. They earned a right to have those”

In Levi-Strauss article there is a part where he details all the rules applied to the Pueblo masks. We are here in the south pacific coast, but I found these rules interesting regarding the sacred meaning of the masks. Each mask was painted following very strict rules about colour symbolism. The colour are truly what made the mask alive. Each time the mask was worn you needed to wash it and then scratch the paint out and then paint it again. The residues of the paint had to be put on a shrine. When they were not used, the masks would be put in jars and fed every day. If this rule wasn’t followed the masks could avenge themselves by devouring the food reserves. You would have to be pure to wear the mask, following the rules, if not the mask could strangle you. 
You can see now how masks are sacred and sometimes even dangerous…
So all these facts made me think about my own practice of making masks (at my humble scale of course). First why do I make them, am I allowed to transform them into commercial items. Where is the meaning of what I am making hidden? It is obvious that I do not make them as religious or sacred devices. But as I always need to pursue meaningful projects and always asked myself about the sense of selling jewellery today, I needed to find the beginning of an answer. Jewellery before the era of consumerism were of course decorative but most of them carried a huge signification: mourning jewellery, symbols of the noblemen, religious medallion, etc.
So I asked myself… There is in me this need to make masks, like an obsession. And as I make each one of them, I applied oblivious rules to myself: they always need to have a mouth or a beak to breath for example. At least most of them. And this reminded me about our own mask making tradition: the Comedia dell’arte. It is very difficult, or at least I didn’t managed to find much information. But I remember my sister told me, when she was in theatre classes, she told me to never ever take a mask by its eyes. And of course it makes sense. There is a hidden life in the mask, or a life ready to be awaken. There is a mystery around masks, sacred rules we apply even though there is no religion involved. 
So maybe I am making atheist masks with sacred rules. And the life in them will be discovered and awakened by its wearer. The part I still didn’t managed to answer is the commercial issue…