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CONTACT: Cecile Fisher
Christine Anderson & Associates
(323) 936-1447



(July 26, 1999 -- Los Angeles, CA) It has often been said that the face is the window to the soul. When replicated in the form of a mask, a face can serve as the window to an entire culture. This legacy is strikingly apparent on the Northwest Coast, where First Nations artists have, for centuries, used masks to reflect their relationship to the cosmos. More than 145 historic and contemporary First Nations masks will soon be displayed in an exhibition hosted by the Southwest Museum. Entitled "Down From the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast," the exhibition will be held December 22, 1999, through May 6, 2000 in Gallery II at LACMA West. The exhibition is organized and circulated by the Vancouver Art Gallery, with support from The Canada Council for the Arts.

The First Nations of the Northwest Coast include ten culturally distinct nations that inhabit the waterways stretching from the northern part of Washington State to southeastern Alaska. Each nation is, in turn, comprised of several independent village groups that are called tribes. As in the past, today they do not recognize international boundaries. They see themselves as people holding a common culture.

Depicting everything from spirits to mythic ancestors, the masks in this landmark exhibition will offer a fascinating window into these important cultures. 'Down From the Shimmering Sky' will juxtapose early and contemporary masks of the last two centuries to explore how First Nations peoples have both preserved and adapted elements of their culture in the face of colonization and modernization. The exhibition will also trace the history of masks, and the intricate network of mask types that reflect First Nations views of the universe and its related deities and creatures. Curators of the exhibition are Peter Macnair, former curator of anthropology at the Royal British Columbia Museum; Robert Joseph, a Kwakwaka'wakw Chief, curator, writer and advisor on land claims and Native rights; and Bruce Grenville, senior curator of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

In lieu of a written language, First Nations tribes have always used the language of masks to keep their stories and history alive. Masks are worn by dancers at an event known as the potlatch, which in the last quarter of the 19th century prevailed, despite the anti-potlatch laws. While the 19th and 20th centuries have seen many masks created strictly for artistic reasons, the long-standing purpose of masks among First Nations peoples has been to represent the supernatural encounters that helped define the cosmos. Masks are often a manifestation of ancestral spirits, enabling the wearer to make the supernatural world visible to the community. Traditionally and ritually, masks are highly guarded and worn only by individuals designated to do so by tribal chiefs and matriarchs.

Although unified by a structured view of the cosmos, the masks in the exhibition reveal the striking array of styles developed by First Nations peoples. Nearly all of the masks represent the human face or some anthropomorphic rendering of an animal or supernatural creature. Nonetheless, styles represented run the gamut from naturalistic to highly stylistic and colorful to monochromatic. First Nations masks represent "the human face divine," as well as beings hailing from the four interconnected dimensions: the Sky, Undersea, Mortal and Spirit Worlds.

Masks created during the latter half of the nineteenth century, in many instances, display characteristics indicative of their creation for the European and American traders who infiltrated the Northwest Coast at that time. These trade masks often lack design elements which only a First Nations individual would have been allowed to wear. The works of modern-day mask-makers such as Joe David, Robert Davidson, Beau Dick, Tony Hunt Jr., Tim Paul, Calvin Hunt and Bill Henderson also figure prominently in the exhibition. Many of these pieces draw their inspiration from the secular world. In total, the exhibition features masks from a vast number of public and private collections in North America and Europe. During the curatorial preparation of the exhibition, representatives of each of the ten First Nations met to discuss both the exhibition and provide their written support.

The exhibition catalog, co-published with Douglas & McIntyre, is a 192-page book with extensive color and black and white illustrations. Essays by Peter Macnair, Robert Joseph and Bruce Grenville contextualize the pieces in the exhibition. Cost of the catalog is $29.95.

Speaking as a member of the First Nations himself, curator Robert Joseph states "In a world of endless change and complexity, the mask has offered a continuum for Native people to acknowledge our connection to the universe. Through masks we identify our humanity. Through masks we affirm celestial places that honor the moon and stars. Through masks we conquer fear of the oceans deep. Through masks we interact with the spirit world, our final destination."

Duane King, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Southwest Museum says "'Down From the Shimmering Sky' is the most comprehensive exhibit ever assembled on Northwest Coast masks. From the examples collected by Captain Cook in the 1770s to the contemporary masterworks, this collection illustrates an unparalleled achievement in artistic creativity."

"Down From the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast" is organized and circulated by the Vancouver Art Gallery with support from The Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade of Canada. Corporate Sponsorship is provided by the Automobile Club of Southern California. Primary in-kind sponsorship is provided by the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. The exhibitionís official magazine corporate sponsor is Native Peoples Magazine, the award-winning national full-color quarterly that began in 1987 as the first publication to present the Native American cultural point of view. "Along with our new Native Artists magazine, the forum of contemporary art, we are pleased to be a sponsor of 'Down from the Shimmering Sky' at the Southwest Museum," says Publisher and Senior Editor Gary Avey. LA Weekly is the exhibition's Local Print Media sponsor. Gallery Sponsorship is provided by Quintana Galleries in Portland, Oregon.

"Down from the Shimmering Sky" will be presented in Gallery II at LACMA West December 23, 1999 through May 6, 2000. Museum hours are Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from noon to 8:00 p.m.; Friday from noon to 9:00 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. The Museum is closed on Wednesdays. Admission to the exhibition is free for Museum members and children under 6; $10 for adults; $8 for students ages 6-17 and seniors ages 62 and over. Tickets may be purchased through Ticketmaster at Tower Records/Robinsons May/The Wherehouse/Tu Musica/Ritmo Latino, by calling (213) 480-3232, (714) 740-2000, (661) 322-2525, (619) 220-TIXS or online at LACMA West is located at 6067 Wilshire Boulevard, on the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles. For more information on the exhibition, call (323) 933-4510.

Go to 'Masks of the Northwest Coast' Fact Sheet
Return to 'Masks of the Northwest Coast' Essays
Return to 'Masks of the Northwest Coast'