'Namgis Kwakwaka'wakw Transformation Mask

This mask represents an animal ancestor of the Kwakwaka'wakw people. Possibly Komokwa, the sea monster. It is carved out of red cedar and would have been worn over the top of the head by a dancer in a feast performance, known as a potlatch. The dancer would also have worn a shredded cloak of red cedar covering their body.
It is a mechanical mask. The dancer opens the 10 rays around the edge by pulling on concealed strings to reveal a figure of a sun or possibly a starfish. Using a separate bunch of strings, the dancer could close it back up with a toss of his head.
The mask is simply and boldly carved. The interior face with deep intersecting planes exaggerates the orbs of the eyes, and the mouth and cheeks are further heightened with striking used of color. The effect should be imagined at winter, in a big house, round a flickering fire in the presence of hundreds of guests.
At North American potlatches, which still flourish today, rights and privileges, including titles, are passed from one generation to the next. In 1921 following a potlatch held by Dan Cranmer on Village Island, 'Mimkwamlis, more than 200 items of regalia, including this mask, were seized and handed over to the police. Potlatching had been banned in 1884 as being wasteful, because of the distribution of goods and money, and un-Christian, because of the representation of "cannibal" dances. In 1922, the year after the confiscation at Village Island, the regalia was sold and distributed to North American museums. In 1938 this mask was sold by what is now the National Museum of the American Indian to Harry Beasley, an English collector, for his Cranmore Museum in Kent. It was one of many artifacts given by his widow to the British Museum after his death.
In 2005 the mask was placed on long term loan with the U'mista Cultural Society, at the 'Namgis community of Alert Bay in British Columbia, alongside other articles returned from North American museums and European collectors.

© Trustees of the British Museum