Ancient Sun Mask Will Shine On Big VAG Show

By Suzanne Fournier - The Province - Thursday, May 14, 1998.

Mask photo by Wayne Leidenfrost

Nuxalk mask carver Henry Mack helped Vancouver Art Gallery curators yesterday uncrate an ancient sun mask that will be the signature piece for the major summer show.

Carved in alder by an unknown Nuxalk 120 years ago and stained with vermilion obtained in trade from the Orient, the sun mask lit up an unfinished gallery.

"We get our dances from the sun, so we dance from the east to the west to represent the way the sun rose. That's different from all other First Nations," explained Mack, who carves for ceremonial occasions and not for sale.

"All the 10 First Nations cultural groups on the West Coast had a great mythic ancestor who came from the sky, and when he landed on Earth he would shimmer with a certain aura," explained Peter Mcnair, a guest curator retired after 30 years at the Royal BC Museum. " The concept of coming down from the shimmering sky is nearly universal on the West Coast."

Among the gallery's most ambitious exhibits, the June 4 to Oct.12 show, "Down From The Shimmering Sky : Masks Of The Northwest Coast", brings together 175 old and contemporary masks obtained from 35 private collections and 22 museums in Canada, Europe and the U.S.

The Nuxalk sun mask was acquired in the early1900's by George Hunt, a Kwakiutl employed by anthropologist Franz Boas, who plundered and shipped native artifacts all over the world.

(Mack observed: "If they hadn't been stolen and kept by museums, we'd never have them today.")

The exhibit, aided by $200,000 from Scotia bank, will be divided into five groups. The first looks at Human Face masks from the 1820s to the present, the rest at how First Nations perceived the cosmos.

Curated by Menair, the VAG's Bruce Grenville and Kwakwanka'wakw Chief Robert Joseph, the exhibit also will showcase the work of modern carvers Joe David, Robert Davidson, Doug Crammer and Tim Paul.