Masks have played important roles in many aboriginal tribal cultures around the world. Some of the most colorful and striking American Indian tribal masks come from West Coast American Indian art by the Northwest Native people. These groups are located in the region from Oregon stretching through Washington state and British Columbia all the way up to southern Alaska along the Pacific coast.
West Coast Indian art masks depict many different humans and animals including mythical creatures from Northwest Native legends. Some masks were portrait masks where they were made to portray specific persons. Animal masks had special meaning for certain clans since all members of a tribe were supposedly descended from specific animals. From a structural point of view, there are generally three different types of masks. The single face mask is the simplest of the three and is carved from a single piece of red cedar wood.
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The second type is a mechanical mask with movable parts. This type of mask was actually developed after Europeans introduced the Northwest Natives to strings and hinges. The Northwest Natives then utilized this European technology to enable eyes and mouths of masks to open and close.
The third type of West Coast Indian mask is the transformation mask which is also the most complex one. This type has an outer mask that can open up to reveal an inner second mask form. Sometimes this inner mask form can even open up to reveal a third mask form.
Obviously, having multiple layers result in more weight in the mask requiring a strong person to wear it. One example of a transformation mask was a salmon as the outer mask which opened up to reveal the salmon bringer inside. The salmon bringer was a character which was said to go down to the bottom of the sea in an underwater canoe to bring the salmon fish up to the rivers. The Kwagiutl people (see Northwest Coast Native Art Region) used transformation masks of animals which opened up to reveal ancestor mask forms inside. These particular masks were used to tell stories of ancestral origins.
The carver must account for shrinkage and warping when sizing up masks. Although the majority of West Coast Indian art masks are made to fit a person's face, not all masks were made with this intention. Masks also come in miniature sizes as well as giant sized versions like the ones on display at Vancouver's airport - see West Coast Indian Art At Vancouver International Airport.
Mask making is one of the more advanced projects in West Coast Indian art and therefore only experienced carvers make them. As with other forms of West Coast Indian art, traditional forms and colors were used on masks - see Basic Elements of Northwest Coast Indian Art. In addition to painting, many masks had other materials such as hair, feathers, gold, straw and skin added in order to enhance the pieces or make them more realistic looking.
West Coast American Indian tribal masks were made for use in ceremonies and rituals. One such ceremony was the potlatch which was a festival that involved a chief of one tribe giving gifts to a chief from another tribe. Tribal chiefs wanted to show off their wealth by giving the best gifts. People from both tribes at a potlatch ceremony would feast, watch the giving of gifts and enjoy the ceremonial dances. Specially trained dancers would wear the masks and act out stories or legends.
An interesting fact is that in many cases, the women and children were not allowed to know the actual meanings of either the masks or the stories being acted out. They were just allowed to watch and enjoy the performances as entertainment. Masks were also used in secret society rituals for shamanism, war, conjuring and inducting young members into a tribe. These rituals were often restricted to certain members of the tribe only.
Today, masks are still used in ceremonies including performances by Northwest Native groups for non-Natives and tourists. One can see these masks in some museums and galleries that exhibit West Coast Indian art. Tribal masks are some of the most sought after items by collectors of West Coast Indian art as a striking and colorful mask definitely makes a very interesting piece of home decor.
Today, West Coast Indian artists make some very stunning masks - see Northwest Native American Masks for some examples currently at our gallery. Just imagine having such a beautiful piece of artwork hanging in your home. Our Northwest Native Indian Art video also features a really beautiful mask.
There is also some information on African Tribal Masks in this website.
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