Rare mask evokes the spirit of adventure

  • Posted: Jun 14, 2013

Finely carved and remarkably serene-looking, a mask from Nootka Sound, on the north-west coast of America is one of the finest pieces in the Iziko Social History collections. Interestingly, it is not from Africa, the main focus of our collections, but from almost literally the other side of the world. In this way, its fascinating history, starting in the 1700s, echoes the diversity and depth of the collections and interests of Iziko Museums of South Africa.

A quest for knowledge and new challenges in the 18th century encouraged intellectuals and adventurers from Europe to venture into unchartered regions, possibly as exciting as space travel is to us today. One of the most famous travellers at the time was James Cook. Another was François le Vaillant, whose charting of his journey in South Africa is recorded on a magnificent silk map – which Iziko recently had the honour of sharing with visitors to the Iziko South African Museum in the The King’s Map exhibition.

James Cook was first appointed in 1768 to make astronomical observations in the southern Pacific Ocean; his final voyage was to ascertain the possibility of a north-west passage from the west coast of North America to Europe. On Cook’s voyages his ships called at the Cape, and he was received with great interest and hospitality. Like other explorers, Cook had collected examples of the natural and cultural discoveries he made, and in appreciation he presented his hosts with gifts of the rare objects he had collected in the Pacific, with the intention that these form the foundation of a museum in Cape Town.

In 1860, Dr EL Layard, the then Director of the South African Museum came upon a dusty collection of these rare objects in the house of the sexton of the Dutch Reformed Church. Interestingly, this would have been located near the present Iziko Social History Centre on Church Square. This collection was transferred to the South African Museum, but it was not until another hundred years had passed that Professor D Bax of the University of Cape Town re-discovered these (less dusty!) in the Museum in the 1960s, and pieced together their remarkable provenance.

The collection includes this wooden mask from the north-west coast of America, collected from Nuu cha nulth people living on Nootka Sound, today Vancouver Island, Canada. It is carved in the form of a human face that has a most peaceful expression. There are small holes on the head that were made for fixing hair, some remaining. The mask is thought to have been used for elaborate ceremonials held in the long winter months. In one of these ceremonies, in which there was dramatic enactment and dancing, the head of one of the women dancers is symbolically cut off by another dancer, who holds it up by the hair – in fact holding up a realistically carved wooden head, with hair attached. Thus the serenity of the mask represents the calm of death.

North-west coast carving usually depicts human and animal forms in a highly stylized way, but in this mask the carver used stylistic convention in details such as the eyebrows, but treated the face naturalistically as a portrait. This artistry was noted by Cook during his sojourn in 1778: “They … preserve, with exactness, the general character of their own faces…”.

Portrait mask from Nootka Sound, north-west coast of America. Both rare and beautiful, this carving is one of the finest pieces in the Ethnographic Collection of the Iziko South African Museum.SAMAE 2361.


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