KWAKWAKA‘WAKW TRANSFORMATION MASK
Beau Dick was a contemporary artist who hailed from the Pacific Northwest—specifically, the Kwakwaka’wakw Community in British Columbia. His work often mobilized traditional Kwakwaka’wakw artmaking practices, and especially wood carving. There has been much buzz about Dick this year at Documenta, the massive and recurring show of contemporary art in Kassel, Germany. First, Dick recently passed away. Second, Dick’s artworks at Documenta are stunning (included are a sequence of masks, which Dick appropriated and adjusted from traditional community forms). Ben Davis wrote something of a takedown about Documenta, “Straining for Wisdom, documenta 14 Implodes Under the Weight of European Guilt,” but even he still notes the incredible power of Dick’s contribution.
And all this press reminds me, personally, of the transformation masks on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History, the latter of which might be the most undervalued art museum in the city. To that end, I submit the above work, a transformation mask of Born To Be The Head Of The World, on permanent display on the Upper West Side.
Kwakwaka’wakw masks played an integral role in the community’s ritual life. Many, like this one, were masks within masks where the unveiling and anthropomorhizing of various spirits could take on a deeper level of theatricality, suspense, and tension. Many such masks allowed for a subtle flickering between human and deity-forms. The Kwakwaka’wakw are now famous for these works, and its no wonder why. Here, when closed, we find a round face with red pursed lips balancing out the complementary green that an artist has thrown across the cheeks. The modeling is well defined, from the cheekbones to the broad, black brow. It’s a remarkable work, but if it were being used, a dancer would have eventually throw it open to reveal a second face—a human one now, not a deity’s.
While the Kwakwaka’wakw transformation mask hinges on the concept of transformation (as this one exemplifies), I like that here we see an ostensibly human face reveal another human face, and not, say, a whale, a hawk, or another animal, which is quite common, if not more common.
There is something to be said about layering here, which I find fascinating. The layering of a face upon a face—the revelation of peeling away one to reveal another. In a way, the Kwakwaka’wakw culture developed one of the greatest portraiture programs the world has ever known. These works, especially when integrated into a larger action, represent complex, self-reflexive, and deeply psychological examinations of the human body, face, and form. So if you’re in New York and you can’t spring for a ticket to Kassel, mosey on up to West 79th Street and seek out the “Hall of Northwest Coast Indians”—you won’t regret it.