Kwakiutl Masks

Assembled by Laurie Close

Historical / Cultural Significance

The masks of the Kwakiutl, were woven into and dramatically displayed in the rich ceremonial like of these Canadian Northwest Coast people. An abundance of food and of material for carving (red and yellow cedar) make an elaborate social and ceremonial structure possible, and masks were used for virtually every occasion. The Kwakiutl borrowed, adapted, and elaborated many themes into complex series of dances, ceremonies, and theatrical preformances. Masks were a very important part of these activities since they gave life to various mythological, elemental, bird and animal figures which the people claimed as their ancestors from the the early days. These supernatural beings had given privileges and special powers to a family, often in the form of a family crest, song, or dance. The family would then portray particular mythologycal figures as part of their heritage.

Principles and Elements of Design

Most of the masks demonstrated a masterful use of line in their smooth concave and convex curves, with sharp, rigid lines used for effect or emphasis on a feature. These rigid curves usually delineated nostrils, eyes and lips through deeply cut carving and/or the use of contrasting color, adding to the form of the mask. Most of the lines had the tendency to run parallel and taper to a terminal point at each end creating contrast in shape between the geometric and organic lines. The Kwakiutl especially demonstrated strong, clear carving, and painting was used to enhance, emphasize or embellish the basic form of the mask. The traditional Kwakiutl choice of colors for paint were dark red, black, white, and green.


Please see Elements and Principles of Design.

Integration into Music/Dance/Drama

In the Kwakiutl calendar, the summer or Bakoostime was the non-ceremonial part of the year. The winter months, or Tsetseka, was the climax of the year; the ceremonial or supernatural season when elaborate theatrical preformances and ceremonies were staged. The Tsetseka was preceeded by the Klasila; a four day period of song, dance, and ceremony when virtually all types of masks were displayed. Potlaches were another occasion where masks were vital for enacting family dances and dramas accompanied by song.

For more ideas on Northwest and West Coast Native art you can link to...

Komokwa, Masks, Killer Whales

West Coast Native Art

Tsimshian Art



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