Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 13, 1999
Peter McNair, Robert Joseph, and Bruce Greenville, eds. Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast Seattle and Vancouver: University of Washington Press in association with Vancouver Art Gallery and Douglas & McIntyre Publishing Group, 1998. 192 pp. Paper $30.00 (0295977094)

Natives from Puget Sound to Southeast Alaska have for centuries created remarkable and striking masks. These artworks are the subject Down from the Shimmering Sky: Masks of the Northwest Coast, the catalogue of an exhibition put on at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1998 and currently traveling about the United States and Canada. The two curators of the exhibit, Peter Macnair and Robert Joseph, join with Vancouver Art Gallery Senior Curator Bruce Greenville to present this lavishly illustrated compendium of masks from the late eighteenth century to the present.

Macnair, Joseph and Greenville’s project is ambitious. The curators’ intention, as stated in the Introduction, is to present masks both as ethnographic objects with profound social significance and as esthetic creations. They organize these masks, which are “manifestations of powerful ancestral spirits . . . used to make the supernatural world visible,” according to the four cosmic directions: creatures of the sky, the underworld, the spirit, and the mortal domains. This is certainly an acceptable classification for the abundant creations from the region, one that invites cross-cultural comparisons.

One important theme is the continuation of style and meaning over time, another innovations in mask styles. To demonstrate these themes, nineeteenth-century masks appear next to contemporary ones. Although the focus is on the supernatural aspect of masks, the authors address other issues, such as commodification of Northwest Coast art, and objects made explicitly for sale. Throughout the book, they attempt to include masks actually worn at ceremonies.

The text consists of a brief introduction by Greenville followed by two essays. Kwakwaka’wakw chief Robert Joseph’s “Behind the Mask” is a moving, first person narrative of the meaning and function of masks from his own culture. “Power of the Shining Heavens,” the essay by Peter Macnair, an expert on Northwest Coast art with years of curatorial experience, is a broadly-based piece on masks from the entire region. He addresses the style of different Native groups, provides a history of Native-white interactions beginning in the late eighteenth century, and describes the context in which masks were worn. His analysis of the “Jenna Cass mask,” one of the earliest types of tourist art, is exceptionally astute and a major contribution to scholarship. Macnair also devotes several pages to each of the “worlds” of the mask spirits, describing artworks that manifest the sky, mortal, undersea and spirit beings.

The main problem with this book is that it attempts to do too much. Each issue the authors address could fill an entire scholarly monograph. But, due to the limitations of space, each topic is given rather superficial treatment. For example, Macnair mentions the complex and fascinating Tsimshian, Gitksan and Nishga naxnok masking tradition in just a few paragraphs. The use of masks in Tlingit shamanism is given equally short shrift. Unfortunately, the illustrated masks are not accompanied by short essays which would explain more thoroughly their meaning and function, and many are not referred to in the text. The information on masking traditions is too brief, and that on individual examples mostly nonexistent. This is frustrating, as one wishes to learn much more about the lovely masks illustrated in excellent plates.

There is a heavy focus on the Kwakwaka’wakw, as a good many of the illustrated masks, and many examples in the text of beings and ceremonies come from that group. This is to be expected in Joseph’s piece. However, Macnair concentrates so much on the Kwakwaka’wakw that he overlooks other traditions. Compare, for example, the large number of masks from this group (76) with the 5 Nuxalk and 8 Tlingit masks. Macnair’s concentration on the Kwakwaka’wakw is not surprising, as he has spent decades working among this group and has immersed himself deeply in their traditions, ceremonies and masks. But by overlooking a large body of exceptional masks from other Northwest Coast people, the book misses a great opportunity to be genuinely comprehensive.

Macnair’s last brief section concerns “Enduring and Evolving Traditions,” an important aspect of Northwest Coast art history. Here, too, he pays a great deal of attention to twentieth century Kwakwaka’wakw masters such as Mungo Martin, Henry Hunt and Tony Hunt. The only non-Kwakwaka’wakw contemporary artist he names is Makah Greg Colfax. Although he illustrates a variety of other contemporary artworks from various groups, he omits any of the Tlingit artists working today such as Nathan Jackson. A reader might conclude wrongly that mask carving is a lost art in southeast Alaska.

Perhaps the era of such overviews has passed. When Robert Inverarity published his survey of Northwest Coast art in the 1950s, relatively little scholarship had been done on this material. By assembling and classifying a range of works from the region, Inverarity performed a great service to the field. Since then, a good number of masters’ theses, Ph.D. dissertations, articles, monographs, catalogues and books have been written (many more than those cited in the bibliography). The information available on Northwest Coast art, from prehistoric times to the present, is extensive, and the unique features of individual groups greatly clarified.

The comparative, cross-cultural format Down from the Shimmering Sky seems unwieldy, as so much more information is available on the mask traditions than can be presented in this format. One single theme could have been addressed in depth, such as the styles of different groups. Or, because there is such a focus on the Kwakwaka’wakw anyway, the authors could have addressed these masks exclusively. Or seriously scholarly essays could have been written by experts of each region. Unlike the exhibition of different traditions, where the visitors discover the abundance of visual material created on the coast, a publication should enhance our knowledge about those artworks. This book, with its exceptional illustrations, represents a missed opportunity to do just that.

Aldona Jonaitis
Director, University of Alaska Museum