The masks of the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast are powerful objects that assist us in defining our place in the cosmos. In a world of endless change and complexity, masks offer a continuum for Native people to acknowledge our connection to the universe.     -Chief Robert Joseph (Down from the Shimmering Sky, 1998)

Entrance Audain Museum

A journey to a new region usually offers wonderful surprises, yet I could not expect to see such stunning First Nation carvings as when I walked across the majestic raised bridge entrance – among the pines – into the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, Canada.

Sun Mask, Kwakwaka’wakw Nation c1800s, Audain Collection, promised gift.

The museum represents the vision of Michael Audain and wife Yoshiko Karasawa of Vancouver to bring the art of British Columbia, from the traditional works of the province’s First Peoples to its contemporary masters, to visitors who come to one of Canada’s most treasured wilderness destinations, Whistler/Blackombe Mountains. This was home to the 2010 Winter Olympics. “What holds the collection together is the commitment to place—this single originating soil of B.C., which has been freakishly fertile in terms of producing artists over the years. When Audain visits New York, they ask him, “Don’t you have any Warhols?” And he does. But his real interest has been in building a profound collective portrait of his home, in presenting its multi-layered histories and even the conflicting views of its inhabitants, the beauty, the import, and the depth of this particular corner of the world.”1 So in the spring of 2016, the Audains’ vision was given to the public as the Audain Art Museum, which opened with its inventive architecture and its 200-piece permanent collection of entirely of B.C. art. In Audain’s words, “It will tell you something about who we are.”

First Nations people lived and made art here long before well-heeled tourists came to hike the mountains in summer or ski them in winter. So upon entering this beautifully designed museum, the permanent collection of beautiful masks and sculptures greets you. The dramatic, stylized designs of First Nations art are fresh and startling.  How long ago were these objects made? Made before European Modernism? Only the colorations on the sculpted objects give away their era of creation.  Of course natural colorants from minerals and plant pigments were used to polychrome the art works so there are no synthetic colors – screaming pinks, yellows or turquoises – such as we see in contemporary art. If there is turquoise, it is real turquoise inlay. Sheen would come from the mineral mica and from shell fragments especially from Mother of Pearl. Nacre is mother of pearl, a composite material produced by some mollusks like abalone, as an inner shell layer and the outer coating of pearls. It is prized for its iridescence. Along the shores of the Pacific Ocean and along abundant rivers in British Columbia, shells were readily available for artistic use. For the rest, lush rich reds, ochre/earth golds and the deepest blacks and greens color these art works.

Lets go back in time. More than 3,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples previously called Aboriginals who lived on the coast of British Columbia, inland and up to southeastern Alaska, like the Coast Salish, Gitxsan, Haisla, Heitsulk, Kwakwaka’waka, Nisga’a, Nuxalk, Nuu-chah-nulth, Tlingit, Tsimshian and Kwakiutl tribes, developed artistic traditions that evolved apart from the art work of their ancient Asian forbearers. Their art is noted for its forceful stylization and abstraction. Think how early European modernists looked at ancient Cycladic art and saw apparent stark purity in their forms (not realizing that these breathtakingly simple marble statues were painted with facial features that wore away from the marble over millennia.) So in America, contemporary artists like Barnett Newman were informed by the stark designs of First Nations artists. Other recognized American modernists who hailed from the Pacific Northwest like Morris Graves, drew inspiration from Indigenous art.

Ceremonial Masks Tlingit nation, c 1840, wood with pigment, abalone, hide, ermine, felt, baleen (whalebone) and sea lion whiskers, Audain Art Museum Collection.

It is clear to me how someone like Barnett Newman was inspired by their art.  There is a term in this Aboriginal art called “formline” and it is the primary design element these artists use.  It is called the ‘positive delineating force of the painting, relief and engraving.”2 This formline may be a strong black painted line, or a deeply carved or engraved relief line in wood. “Formlines are continuous, flowing, curvilinear lines that turn, swell and diminish in a prescribed manner. They are used for figure outlines, internal design elements and in abstract compositions.”3 These are important cultural signifiers that are outside our knowledge base and beyond our emotional understanding.  These people were enmeshed in nature, as all peoples once were. Their masks, ceremonial objects and totems speak to them on a far more resonant level than we can comprehend.  It is their culture with their cultural signifiers.  We see the formal, Greenbergian side of it.

Formline painting was based on a three-color scheme of primary black lines traditionally, charcoal and lignite, secondary red lines made from ochers and tertiary blue-green elements made from copper minerals. Pigments were mixed with a medium derived from dried salmon eggs and paintbrushes were made of porcupine hairs. The pigments were similar to European egg tempera used over millennia and particularly popular in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Egg yolks were carefully mixed with dried colored pigments, as yolk is a great binder for the pigments to adhere to the surface to which they were applied.

Untitled (bear mask) Tsimshian, Artist, 19th Century, image Audain Museum

Just studying the iconography of several mask and totem symbols helps us understand how profoundly the First Nation artists represented and honored other creatures in the world.

“The Bear Symbol. Known as the Protector of the animal kingdom the Bear is the most powerful coastal animal. In the Haida culture the Bear is known as “Elder Kinsman” and is treated as a noble guest. Whenever a Bear is killed it is brought inside and eagle down is spread upon it to show respect. The Bear is also known for its human-like qualities. Legend says that a First Nations chief’s daughter fell in love with and married a Bear, who happened to be the nephew of the Great Bear Chief.  She gave birth to twin bear cubs and was known as the Bear Mother. This created a close relationship between Bears and humans.

The Hummingbird Symbol. A legend from the Kwakwaka’wakw says that Dzunuk’wa (the mythic guardian of the mountains and Wild Women of the Woods) loved this little bird so much, she let him nest in her hair; in return, the Hummingbird looked like a jewel pinned in her hair. Of all the birds, they are the most talented flyers. They can hover in one place, fly sideways, backwards and forwards. They teach us to look back to our past, but not to dwell, instead to move forward.  Hummingbirds also tell us to savor every sweet moment as they do when hovering over each flower. Native Americans believe that it brings luck to see a Hummingbird before major events such as long hunting trips or travelling to other villages.

The Thunderbird Symbol. The Thunderbird is a mythical creature that is said to be the dominating force of all natural activity. Located in the Pacific Northwestern Mountains, the Thunderbird creates booms of thunder by flapping its wings, and shoots bolts of lightning from his eyes, when hunters got too close to his home. By creating rainstorms he waters the earth, making it possible for vegetation to grow. He is said to be so huge that his wingspan is as large as two canoes, and that he could easily carry a killer whale out of the water with his talons. Only the most powerful and successful chiefs and families use the Thunderbird in their crest. He resembles the Eagle but is distinguished by the two curved horns or Plumage on his head. Long ago the Native people pleaded to the Thunderbird for help in times of food shortage, and he helped, but in return requested that from then on he be only be depicted at the top of a totem pole with his wings stretched out. That is why on many Northwest Coast totem poles, the Thunderbird is carved on top of the pole.”4

I also want to put a face to the name Michael Audain. He is London-born during World War II, so there was that horrific instability that characterized his early years before his family finally moved to British Columbia where relatives had established themselves.  Audain went back to Europe for study: the London School of Economics and the University of Lyon. His moral and civic engagement is clear; back in the United States, Audain was arrested while battling racial segregation in Mississippi. Upon returning to Canada, he founded the Nuclear Disarmament Club at the University of British Columbia, organized peace rallies in the 1960s, and at 25 helped found the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which he started in his living room.

It is a sad note to interject into this article, but once there was colonial expansion and European missionary zeal in the 19th and even into the early 20th century, a lot of the ceremonial objects were burned, or stolen from tribes and sold to collectors of exotic Aboriginal art. So Audain has achieved another civic mission by repatriating many of these rare and beautiful ceremonial objects back to British Columbia whence they originated.

Dance Screen (The Scream Too) 2010-2013, James Hart (1952-) red cedar, abalone, mica, acrylic, wire and yew wood. Audain Art Museum Collection, gift of Michael Audain and Yoshiko Karasawa


Detail fish motif

Audain and Karasawa also collect contemporary First Nation art works.  The most stunning is their commission of a Haida artist, James Hart, who carved the magnificent Dancer’s Screen made of red cedar wood, abalone, mica, acrylic, wire and yew wood. It took from 2010 to 2013 to complete. The Audain Museum’s collection of contemporary First nations art can be the subject of a separate article to do justice to the vitality and originality of contemporary First nations artists.

1Michael Harris

2 Marjorie Halpin, Canada’s Online Encyclopedia, edited March 2015

3 Ibid.

4 Newsletter, Spirits of the West Coast Native Art Gallery, Courtenay, BC, Canada

–Cynthia M. Kukla is an artist and Professor Emerita in Art living in Cincinnati, OH.




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