in Features | 06 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 3

Telling Tales - 1900s Alaska

From Ancient Egypt to Baroque Bologna to avant-garde Moscow, the works at Frieze Masters open up a world of stories

in Features | 06 SEP 16

From the collection of the 'last Surrealist'

Donald Ellis Gallery, F17

Yup’ik Moon Mask, c.1900, wood, pigments, vegetal fibre, 29 cm wide

This extraordinary mask was made in the late 19th century by the Yup’ik people, who lived in southwest Alaska. Invoking animal and natural spirits, the Yup’ik would use these in dances, storytelling and rituals to ensure a bountiful hunt in the coming spring, before being ceremonially burned. This example was originally acquired on the Kuskokwim River by the legendary field collector Adams Hollis Twitchell around 1905–15. Twitchell later sold it to George Gustav Heye, who amassed the world’s largest collection of Native American artefacts – when it exceeded the space available at his Madison Avenue apartment, he founded the National Museum of the American Indian, where this mask was displayed.

When Heye experienced financial difficulties in the 1940s he sold a number of highly important Yup’ik masks, not least to the European Surrealists who had emmigrated to New York during World War II. This mask, along with several others, was acquired in 1945 by the painter and sculptor Enrico Donati, who had moved from Italy in the 1930s. Part of the circle of André Breton, when Donati died in Manhattan in 2008, his New York Times obituary said he was frequently described as ‘the last of the Surrealists’.