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Photo credit: Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University

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Culture: Kwakiutl (Canada)
Title: Sea Monster Mask
Medium: Wood, beaver pelts and alderwood bark
Dimensions: 10 x 11 in. (25.4 x 27.9 cm)
Credit Line: Gift of Noyes Huston, Class of 1932
Object Number: 80.023.005
This twentieth century Kwakwaka'wakw mask from Canada represents a sea monster.

While we don’t know exactly who made this mask and where, it likely comes from British Columbia, Canada. Alert Bay, a community on a coastal island in British Columbia, is home to many talented Kwakwaka'wakw artists.

This mask was carved from wood, likely with hand tools, and painted. A beaver pelt is secured to the back to cover the back of the wearer’s head.

Traditionally, Kwakwaka'wakw masks are worn during dance ceremonies that take place during the potlatch. Potlatch celebrations used to fill three to four days. Now, most celebrations take place in one day. The potlatch is an opportunity for communities to come together to celebrate weddings, commemorate the recently deceased, honor their leaders, and exchange gifts. The family that hosts the potlatch gives away numerous gifts, as a demonstration of their wealth and in the spirit of sharing this wealth with others.

The Kwakwaka'wakw are known for representing their rich cultural heritage and mythology in works of art such as vivid masks and elaborate totem poles. The sea monster motif seen in this mask commemorates the emergence of a large marine creature from Blackfish Sound, as well as the role of the sea monster as an ancestor. The Kwakwaka'wakw believe that the first people were created when various supernatural beings (including the Sun, Seagull, Grizzly Bear, Thunderbird, Killer Whale, and Sea Monster) took off their masks and became human. Each Kwakwaka'wakw group descends from one of these different creator/ancestors. Mask motifs include the supernatural bird masks Thunderbird and his brother Kolus, as well as the Kwakwaka'wakw sun mask with its embellished rays. You can see an example of the sun mask in this case as well. The animal and human forms are often quite realistic, in part due to the three-dimensional effects achieved through deeply cut carving.

NOTE: This electronic record is compiled from historic documentation which may not reflect the Johnson Museum's complete or current knowledge of the object. Review and refinement of such records is ongoing.