Many of the masks feature the face of the inua spirit, who was responsible for mediating between the realms. Four fingers often protrude from the masks’ edges, representing the characters’ hands. According to Ellis, this was superstition: Given a thumb, the spirits could grasp and steal the food the Yup’ik were trying to bring forth.
All the masks in the show are made of wood. Some feature intricate combinations of pigment, feathers, sinew, and vegetal fibers. The most important mask on view at Di Donna, says Ellis, is a “weather mask” from the collection of Surrealist artist Enrico Donati, which features dangling wooden rods that resemble wind chimes. Its artistry is nearly nonpareil within Native American craft practice.
Not all of the Surrealists collected masks, nor does the exhibition posit that they directly inspired all the featured Surrealist artworks. Instead, the director of exhibitions and head of research at Di Donna, Dr. Jennifer Field, and her team have tried to find intriguing resonances. For example, a Dance Mask (c. 1890–1910) hangs next to Miró’s Peinture (La Sirène) (1927). Miró’s parenthetical title (which loosely translates to “mermaid”)implies a hybrid creature, half-human and half-fish, whose nose itself resembles a salmon. The Yup’ik mask that accompanies it likewise combines bird, seal, fish, and human forms. “We didn’t want the show to be about literal pairings,” Field tells Artsy. “We wanted the masks to be able to stand on their own and contain some of their original purpose and spirit.”