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Ancestral Influences

May-June 2009

Phillip Charette, M.Ed. ’94, says his artistic style has evolved during the decade he's spent as a professional artist.  Particularly influential, he says, was a 2003 trip to the Smithsonian Institution to view Yup'ik masks from the museum's collection. Charette's art had always combined traditional Yup'ik symbols and his own modern touches; at the Smithsonian, he encountered new symbols, and masks that used familiar elements in a new way. Below is a selection of Charette's creations (both pre- and post-Smithsonian-visit); each mask appears alongside a historical mask from the Smithsonian's Yup'ik collection that uses some of the same motifs. (In each pair, Charette's pieces are on the left, the Smithsonian's on the right.)

Left: Courtesy of Santa Fe Indian Market-SWAIA; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian

In Yup’ik lore, the crane connotes stealth, power, and insight. The human face on the bird’s belly (in both masks) represents its yua, or spirit—the part of the animal that understands, and can relate to, humans. The pair of hands (also seen in both masks) are a typical Yup’ik symbol indicating that the mask is for use by a shaman. Historical Yup’ik masks—at least those that have survived—were made of wood; Charette crafts his from clay, but often tries to give the appearance of wood. 

 

Left: Photograph by Mitchel Wienken/Portland Art Museum; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.

Both these masks depict Amikuk, a creature of Yup’ik legend. Writing in the early twentieth century, the collector and Alaska resident A.H. Twitchell described Amikuk as “a spirit that lives in the ground. He comes out at times but leaves no hole in the ground. He sometimes dislikes men and will jump through them, but leaves no mark. The man then lies down and dies.” The “teeth” (which are wood in the Smithsonian mask, and not animal bone but porcelain, hand sculpted by the artist, in Charette’s mask) serve as a reminder “to use our gifts for good effect, or they will consume us later in life,” says Charette. Objects that hang from the bottom of the mask ward off evil spirits with their sound (as in a windchime). 

 

Left: Courtesy of Stonington Gallery; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Charette’s Arctic Dancer mask and this Smithsonian mask display similar asymmetrical treatment of the eyes. In the Yup’ik tradition, white dots on a black background represent stars in the sky and the spirits of ancestors. 

 

Left: Courtesy of Phillip Charette; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

In both Charette’s Grandpa’s Life dance stick and this hanging dance ornament from the Smithsonian collection, small figures are appended to the piece’s main body. In Charette’s sculpture, the figures are crafted from Styrofoam fishing floats that he recovered, after his grandfather’s death, from a spot where they used to fish together; Charette attached small “singing spirit” masks, symbolizing the traditional Yup’ik view of death and the afterlife, to the floats. The Smithsonian piece features two walruses, a whale, a seal, and a fish—and holes for three more figures that were lost.

 

Left: Courtesy of Phillip Charette; Right: Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum

In Yup’ik lore, the walrus is a symbol of strength. Charette’s version incorporates “singing spirit” masks and other details that connote ancestors. The Smithsonian mask, also collected by A.H. Twitchell, depicts “the spirit that drives the walrus, sea-lions, and seals towards the shore so the hunter can get them,” Twitchell wrote. 

 

Left: Courtesy of Stonington Gallery; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian

This mask by Charette is one of a pair depicting Negaqvaq, the North Wind spirit. The appendage coming out of the head leads to three rings that represent the wind spirit’s breath. The Smithsonian mask represents Tomanik, the “windmaker” figure of Yup’ik lore—the light-colored tube (top) being for winter, and the black tube (bottom) for summer. (Charette uses wild turkey feathers in place of the owl feathers used traditionally because owls are said to travel with the spirits and be strongly connected to the spirit world.) The masks’ thumbless hands are an invocation against greed, says Charette: they warn the viewer to hold back from overharvesting natural resources and to be a good steward of the earth. Charette cut holes into the hands of his masks as points of entry for spirits. Each mask features a pair of wooden rings whose significance Charette describes this way: “The inner ring represents the here and now of our existence in the physical world. The outer ring represents the unseen part of our existence where spirits move freely and may be found. Both rings are connected to each other, symbolizing the traditional Yup’ik belief in the constant connection between the physical and the spiritual worlds.” 

 

Left: Courtesy of Phillip Charette; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution (main image and inset)

Charette intended this mask, from his Poisoned series, as direct commentary on his Smithsonian research. In the process, he comments on the practice of collecting and displaying Native American artifacts in general, and more broadly on the relationship between Native Americans and European settlers. Charette saw many Yup’ik masks that had been treated with arsenic as a pesticide when the museum acquired them, and then further defiled by being stamped with the word “poisoned” once the dangers of topical exposure to arsenic became known. This mask represents his take on a common Yup’ik form (the Smithsonian mask being one example). Charette uses red paint to stand in for the blood that would line masks’ mouth and eye openings in historical masks (particularly visible in the inset image, a rear view of the Smithsonian mask). A book on Yup’ik masks and their history relates that one Yup’ik woman, viewing photographs of masks such as this Smithsonian piece, “recalled the well-known story of the child with a mouth from ear to ear that ate its mother and then went from house to house eating people.”

 

Left: Courtesy of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Charette’s Old Sea Bird Yua mask is part of the permanent collection at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, Oregon. The book on Yup’ik masks describes the Smithsonian piece as “delicate mask, both bird and face, collected by J.H. Turner on the lower Yukon, 1891” and offers the following story from a Yup’ik woman: “There was an angalkuq [shaman] who was very prominent, who was approached by a little calling bird out in the ocean. While he was on ice early in the morning, a little bird landed above him and began to sing. As he listened to it singing, he understood its call saying, ‘It is going to get stormy. Don’t stay there, go up to the land.’ …When he understood what it was saying he went up to the land. Shortly after that, it got very stormy and pieces of ice began to break off and float out to the ocean. That little bird was probably his little tuunraq [helping spirit].” 

 

Left: Courtesy of Stonington Gallery; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Charette says his horsehair firing method represents “the chaos Yup’ik are in as a result of forced assimilation and acculturation.” This falcon mask from his Transformation series follows a time-honored Yup’ik form seen in the Smithsonian piece, described as “simultaneously a bird and a human face, collected by J.H. Turner from the lower Yukon, 1891.” 

 

Left: Courtesy of Phillip Charette; Right: Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

Charette’s wolf mask (one of his few wooden pieces) is a very modern twist on a traditional Yup’ik form. He carved the mask from a piece of wood given to him by an artist friend as a “challenge.” Inspiration for this piece came from a personal encounter Charette had with the powerful animal while hunting with relatives in Alaska. Charette recalls looking down to see a footprint the size of his hand—with water seeping into it, indicating its freshness. Charette never saw the wolf, but heard it walking close by, he says: “It seemed that we were listening to each other for about a half hour before the wolf moved on to something else. In that time, I did not sense danger but felt a deep sense of curiosity with a strong presence.” 

 

Images of objects from the Smithsonian Collection are reproduced with permission from The Living Tradition of Yup'ik Masks: Agayuliyararput (our way of making prayer) by Ann Fienup-Riordan; photography by Barry McWayne; University of Washington Press, 1996.