Mask-Making Exhibit Opens with Alaskan Demonstration

Story posted October 15, 1998


Oct. 12, 1998, BRUNSWICK, Maine -- The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum kicks off its new exhibit, Facing the Future: Mask-Making Traditions of North Alaska, with demonstrations by three Alaskan mask makers from 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, Oct. 17.

The demonstrations will include mask-making activities for children. Visitors also will have the opportunity to view the exhibit and videos of traditional Alaskan Inuit dancing. The event and museum admission are free and open to the public.

During the week of Oct. 18, the mask makers will meet with college students enrolled in Anthropology and Visual Arts courses, and will conduct mask-making workshops with 4th grade students in the Brunswick public schools through the Arts Are Elementary program.

The exhibit, which will run for about a year, features masks from Bowdoin College's collections that never have been seen by the public. It is the first exhibit outside of Alaska to focus on the mask-making tradition of a group of Inuit known as the Nunamiut, or People of the Land. The Nunamiut live in a small community called Anaktuvuk Pass, in the Brooks Range of northern Alaska.

The museum acquired the masks from Ursula Holzkamper of Oakland, Maine, who collected them while she was working as a Public Health nurse in Kotzebue, Alaska.

The Nunamiut are caribou hunters. Throughout the twentieth century, they have held on to their traditional way of life while adapting to a modernizing world. In the late 1950s, they began making and selling innovative masks fashioned out of caribou skin and other furs. The masks, which depict people wearing traditional Nunamiut clothing, hair styles and face decorations, create a link to the past and a bridge to the future: By making masks, people are reminded of long-standing cultural practices and beliefs; by selling them, they earn the money that allows them to hunt for their traditional foods and participate in a cash economy.

The exhibit explains how two Anaktuvuk Pass hunters were inspired to make masks after seeing Halloween masks in a store in Fairbanks. Incorporating more than 100 objects and historic and contemporary photographs, the exhibit explores their innovative art of mask making, the traditional meanings of clothing and decorations featured on the masks and the modern adaptations of the north Alaskans.

As part of the exhibit, visitors can explore the Anaktuvuk Pass Web site to see the community and its mask-making tradition through the eyes of Nunamiut school children.

Contemporary northern arts and crafts, an exhibit poster and catalogue and other books about Arctic cultures and environments can be purchased in the Museum's shop.

The mask makers coming to Bowdoin from Alaska are Rachel Riley, who teaches the Nunamiut culture in the Anaktuvuk Pass school; Justus Mekiana, who was instrumental in developing the technique all Nunamiut mask makers use to form the flat skins into three-dimensional faces, and Ethel Mekiana, who has been making masks for many years and continues to create innovative designs. Their demonstration was made possible through the support of the Association of Bowdoin Friends, and their work is on view in the exhibit.

The exhibit is curated by Genevieve M. LeMoine.

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum is located on the main floor of Hubbard Hall on the Bowdoin College campus. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and on national holidays. For more information call 725-3416.

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