Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Whale Transformation Mask

19th century
Canada, British Columbia
Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl)
Wood, paint, cord, metal, leather, denim
H. 23 1/2 x W. 14 3/8 x L. 63 1/2 in. (59.8 x 36.5 x 161.3 cm)
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 356
The impressive whale masks of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples are grand
constructions in which the mouth, fins, and tail of a sea mammal are made
to move in imitation of a whale swimming. The tail goes up and down, the
lateral flippers move in and out, and the great mouth opens. The dorsal fin
also moves slightly. The entire mechanism is rigged in such a way that the
performer, while carrying the mask on back and shoulders, can manipulate it
with his hands much like a puppet and mimic the gestures of a swimming
whale. When actively performing, a costume of shredded bark hangs from
the mask, hiding the body of the wearer. This example is an unusual type
called a transformation mask, in which one creature opens to reveal another.
In the whale’s mouth is a large, hook-nosed face, which may be that of the
ancestor who interacted with a whale in the mythic past, thereby making the
whale the emblem of the family lineage.
[Julius Carlebach Gallery, New York, until 1956]; Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, 1956, on loan to The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1956–1978

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