Exhibitions: Living Legacies: The Arts of the Americas

Thunderbird Tranformation Mask

Thunderbird Transformation Mask. Alert Bay, British Columbia, Canada. Namgis artist, Kwakwaka'wakw, 19th century. Cedar wood, pigment, leather, nails, and metal plate. Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1908, Museum Collection Fund, 08.491.8902

Kwakwaka'wakw dancers use special effects to suggest supernatural powers and to excite their audiences. A cord rigging allowed a dancer to open and close this mask, creating a dramatic transformation. The exterior represents a thunderbird that, according to the beliefs of the Namgis people, completed the creation of the world. Once it is opened, the mask reveals a face—either human or snake—surrounded by two heads of the sisiutl, or lightning snake. A small man, possibly representing an ancestor or deceased chief, sits on top, and the bottom depicts a bearlike creature.