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Alaskan Dancer Helps Solve The Yup’Ik Mask Puzzle

We all love a good puzzle especially in cases where we will get it right by putting all the pieces where they actually belong. With puzzles it is always the small pieces that often make the big picture; basically, without the small pieces we are never really able to understand the bigger picture. Puzzles apply almost in every situation in life: there are puzzles that we should solve in our social life, our work places and even with family or even when we are having a good time like playing games on our laptops and phones or tablets, we need to solve the puzzle.

Puzzles are so easy yet so hard, they are all about placing things where they actually fit or belong and so long as you are determined, you will always be able to solve them. It’s with no doubt that our lives are summed up by the puzzles we solve daily and until we are able to solve them, we can never really be at peace. In some cases, we ask for help from people who can solve them.

Caitlin Mahony, an assistant conservator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of art is not new to life puzzles and in her case her puzzle was “work related.” Caitlin first examined a wooden Yup’ik mast that was created around the 1900 and was amazed by it and didn’t really know how to proceed with it. The mask was perforated with holes on the side into which appendages were inserted. Some of the appendages were broken, missing or probably wrongly fitted and this made it difficult for Caitlin to understand the mask. You see how it feels when you play a game on your phone and have to fit in certain things and it is so hard to figure it out but you keep playing because you need to get it right? Well, that was the case for Caitlin, to get the actual mask features well put for it to actually look like a mask.

Caitlin sort help from Chuna McIntyre, a storyteller and dancer born in southwestern Alaska who travels performing in traditional costume as an ambassador for central Yup’ik culture. Chuna was definitely a good solution considering the fact that he is an ambassador of the Yup’ik culture; he sure came in handy and was able to fit the pieces together; he helped decipher the original configuration of the. Chuna got most of his knowledge of Yup’ik culture from his grandmother, who passed along traditional stories, dances and songs.

Two comma-shaped red pieces depicting spurts of blood were moved from the skull to the gills of one of the two salmon framing the top of the mask. A hoop on the mask was in the wrong location, and previous repairs on it were failing, so Mahony adjusted the position and stabilized it. The two flippers towards the bottom of the front of the mask were not originally a pair but a single front and a single back flipper, so one was moved.

Carved from driftwood and measuring nearly 3ft in height, the mask depicts a kayak pierced by a seal and studded with a skull, a fish, a bird’s head, hands, flippers and feathers. Because the mask was too large to be worn during ceremonies, it would be suspended from the ceiling and then a Yup’ik dancer would approach it from the rear and bite on a protrusion to set it in motion.

The mask was donated to the Met last year and is now on view at the museum alongside other 115 objects dating from the 2nd to the early 20th century in Art In Native America. A mixture of sculptures, drawings, paintings that will be showing at the museum aim at acquainting viewers with the customs and daily life of more than 50 indigenous cultures. The mask is now a glimpse of the ancient connection to the spiritual realm thanks to the joint effort of Chuna and Caitlin. It is now up for viewing with its pieces well put together.

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