Collection of Alaskan art

Collection of Alaskan art
yup’ik Mask, ca.1900
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Collection of Alaskan art
yup’ik Mask, ca.1900

Kuskokwim, Alaska
Painted wood, leather ties, height 101 cm
Photo: Robert Bayer, Basel

This mask, which would be worn in the firelight of nocturnal ceremonies, shows the stylized head of a fish with fins. A curved piece of wood has been attached at the top, from which four oval discs of wood hang. The mouth of the fish sits on top of a pipe-shaped piece of wood that forms a kind of nozzle. This is a traditional “windmaker mask” used by the indigenous peoples of Alaska to evoke two fundamental aspects of their lives: fish as a basic foodstuff, and the wind that moves the sea in which the fish live.

Coming to the understanding that the art created by peoples untouched by Western civilization possessed autonomous meaning and profound expressivity was of great importance to modernist art. Many European artists such as Picasso and Matisse not only collected works of art from beyond Europe, but they also drew inspiration from their forms and expression. A prime example of this is Picasso's Femme from 1907 in the Fondation, whose facial form is influenced by African masks. So it is altogether logical to do as Hildy and Ernst Beyeler did and supplement a collection of modern Western art with non-European art. Even if these works have been divested of their actual function as objects of cultic veneration invested with supernatural powers, they are displayed in the museum in the belief that they can take their place on an equal footing alongside the works of modern art. Besides, could there be a more appropriate way of presenting these religiously inspired works outside their original cultural context than to exhibit them in the company of pictures by the great masters of modernism?

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