Joshua Aronson

In the fall of 2012 I visited the exhibit of Northwest Coast and Arctic Peoples at the Field Museum, Chicago.

Entering is significant, as though you've wandered into a shrine, contemplative, quiet, cool and, to western eyes, bizarre: where should be the familiar liturgy, where western eyes will expect homilies etched in glass, instead men and beasts of every kind soar skyward.

I was taken especially with the collection of transformation masks, their faces grimacing, stoic, fearful, menacing, serene.

mask-19.jpg
Mask #19. Oil on wood. 24 x 30 in.
mask-18.jpg
Mask #18. Oil on wood. 24 x 30 in.
  • mask-2.jpg
    Mask #2. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.
  • mask-3.jpg
    Mask #3. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.
  • mask-10.jpg
    Mask #10. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.
  • mask-4.jpg
    Mask #4. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.
  • mask-6.jpg
    Mask #6. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.
  • mask-5.jpg
    Mask #5. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.
  • mask-16.jpg
    Mask #16. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.
  • mask-1.jpg
    Mask #1. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.
  • mask-13.jpg
    Mask #13. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 12 x 12 in.

I don't pretend to know much about the individual masks. Indeed I've requested and await catalog details from the Field Museum. Many of the masks are articulated, opening to reveal another or sometimes two more masks within. They were made by Haida, Bella Coola, Sisoak and other native tribes to be used in traditional ceremonies and performances. In these, lit by fire, the animal masked actor would, at the moment of transformation, turn from the audience, manipulate the masks' hidden strings and latches to reveal an inner human visage.

mask-15.jpg
Mask #15. Pastel, charcoal on wood. 24 x 30 in.
mask-12.jpg
Mask #12. Acrylic, charcoal, carving on wood. 18 x 24 in.
mask-11.jpg
Mask #11. Charcoal, chalk, crayon, carving on wood. 18 x 24 in.

For years after seeing the exhibit, the images of these masks persisted in my mind. Though I only took a few pictures during my first and only visit, I was able to piece together the contents of the collection through image sharing sites, such as flickr, and image search aggregators like google.

A forthcoming installation titled Transformations will include a replica of the Field Museum exhibit featuring these peices as its first act.