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Kwakwaka’wakw artist. Thunderbird Transformation Mask, 19th century. Alert Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Cedar, pigment, leather, nails, metal plate, open: 48 x 71 x 15 in. (121.9 x 180.3 x 38.1 cm), closed: 2012 x 17 x 2912 in. (52.1 x 43.2 x 74.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1908, Museum Collection Fund, 08.491.8902

<p>Kwakw<ins>a</ins>k<ins>a</ins>’wakw artist. <i>Thunderbird Transformation Mask</i>, 19th century. Alert Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Cedar, pigment, leather, nails, metal plate, open: 48 x 71 x 15 in. (121.9 x 180.3 x 38.1 cm), closed: 20<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>2</sub> x 17 x 29<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>2</sub> in. (52.1 x 43.2 x 74.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1908, Museum Collection Fund, 08.491.8902</p>

Kwakwaka’wakw artist. Thunderbird Transformation Mask, 19th century. Alert Bay, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Cedar, pigment, leather, nails, metal plate, open: 48 x 71 x 15 in. (121.9 x 180.3 x 38.1 cm), closed: 2012 x 17 x 2912 in. (52.1 x 43.2 x 74.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1908, Museum Collection Fund, 08.491.8902

<p>Mimbres artist(s). <i>Stone Effigies</i>, 1000–1100 B.C.E. Sanders, Arizona, United States. Stone, pigment. Museum Expedition 1903, Museum Collection Fund, 03.325.4527–.4534</p>

Mimbres artist(s). Stone Effigies, 1000–1100 B.C.E. Sanders, Arizona, United States. Stone, pigment. Museum Expedition 1903, Museum Collection Fund, 03.325.4527–.4534

These eight figurines were found inside a ceramic vessel near Sanders, Arizona, but the context of the discovery site is unknown. Their facial features, thin arms, and angular postures point to a Mimbres origin. Similar stone figurines have been discovered in the region in a variety of archaeological contexts, including a burial, a domestic room, and a trash mound. The open mouths suggest some form of communication and the objects’ small size indicates personal use, but questions remain: Were the objects used for rituals, burial offerings, or as treasured possessions? Were they discarded after one use?

<p>Maya artist. <i>Effigy Vessel in the Form of a Jaguar Impersonator</i>, 400–500. Mexico or Peten, Guatemala. Ceramic, pigment, 7 x 4<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>4</sub> x 3 in. (17.8 x 10.8 x 7.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift in memory of Frederic Zeller, 2009.2.11</p>

Maya artist. Effigy Vessel in the Form of a Jaguar Impersonator, 400–500. Mexico or Peten, Guatemala. Ceramic, pigment, 7 x 414 x 3 in. (17.8 x 10.8 x 7.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift in memory of Frederic Zeller, 2009.2.11

This Maya effigy vessel depicts the head and torso of a hunchback human figure wearing a full jaguar-skin costume. Small teeth are visible near the fangs, and hands appear above the paws. Hunchbacks and dwarves were highly respected among the Maya, frequently serving as attendants to rulers. Like the jaguar-skinned dancers depicted on cylindrical vessels, this figure may be impersonating the God of the Underworld, with the scarf around his neck symbolizing human sacrifice and death.

<p>Henry Shelton (Hopi, born 1929). <i>Oötsawihazru</i>, 1960–70. Oraibi, Third Mesa, Arizona, United States. Cottonwood root, acrylic pigment, hide, feathers, fur, yarn, silver, 21 x 8 x 6<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>2</sub> in. (53.3 x 20.3 x 16.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Edith and Hershel Samuels, 2010.6.7</p>

Henry Shelton (Hopi, born 1929). Oötsawihazru, 1960–70. Oraibi, Third Mesa, Arizona, United States. Cottonwood root, acrylic pigment, hide, feathers, fur, yarn, silver, 21 x 8 x 612 in. (53.3 x 20.3 x 16.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Edith and Hershel Samuels, 2010.6.7

Oötsawihazru Kachina is an Ogre’s Uncle, a so-called White Ogre. These Kachinas are a little more patient than the Black Ogres, such as Chaveyo. Ogres, collectively called Soo’so’yokto, appear near the end of the Powamuya (Bean Dance) ceremony held in February, in which the participating Kachina spirits are implored to carry out purification of all life. Their role as Ogres is to scare people into behaving properly and following the rules.

<p>Pamí’wa artist. <i>Dance Mask (Takü)</i>, 20th century. Colombia or Brazil. Bark cloth, wood, pigments. Frank L. Babbott Fund, 61.34.2</p>

Pamí’wa artist. Dance Mask (Takü), 20th century. Colombia or Brazil. Bark cloth, wood, pigments. Frank L. Babbott Fund, 61.34.2

The Pamí’wa, commonly referred to as the Cubeo, live in the present-day countries of Colombia and Brazil and are known for elaborate dance masks made of painted bark cloth. These full-body masks are worn for the mourning, or ónyo (“weeping”), ceremony, a multiday ritual held approximately a year after an individual’s death. The masks represent the spirits of primordial animals who were created by the deity Kúwai at the beginning of time and were prototypes for real species. Made and worn by men, the masks do not come alive until they are danced, thereby creating a connection between ancestral and present-day worlds. Geometric designs are more common on such masks than the snakes depicted here, which may represent the spirit Ala, a venomous viper.

<p>Nasca artists. <i>Mantle, known as the Paracas Textile</i>, 100–300. Peru. Cotton, camelid fiber, 24<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>2</sub> x 58<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>4</sub> in. (62.2 x 148 cm). Brooklyn Museum, John Thomas Underwood Memorial Fund, 38.121</p>

Nasca artists. Mantle, known as the Paracas Textile, 100–300. Peru. Cotton, camelid fiber, 2412 x 5814 in. (62.2 x 148 cm). Brooklyn Museum, John Thomas Underwood Memorial Fund, 38.121

This extraordinarily complex mantle, or cloak, is one of the most renowned Andean textiles in the world. It was most likely used as a ceremonial object. The ninety figures decorating the border, created by needle knitting, have been interpreted as a microcosm of life on Peru’s South Coast two thousand years ago, with a particular focus on agriculture. Many of the images illustrate native flora and fauna as well as cultivated plants. Costumed figures may represent humans impersonating gods and acting as intermediaries between the real and supernatural worlds. Severed human trophy heads are shown as germinating seeds, suggesting the practice of ritual sacrifice and the interconnected cycles of birth and death.

<p>Coclé artist. <i>Plaque with Crocodile Deity</i>, circa 700–900. Sitio Conte, Coclé Province, Panama. Gold, 9 x 8<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>2</sub> in. (22.9 x 21.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1931, Museum Collection Fund, 33.448.12</p>

Coclé artist. Plaque with Crocodile Deity, circa 700–900. Sitio Conte, Coclé Province, Panama. Gold, 9 x 812 in. (22.9 x 21.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1931, Museum Collection Fund, 33.448.12

In Panama the Crocodile God was the principal deity for more than a thousand years and was most likely associated with strength, the sun and water, and fertility. The ruling elite probably wore prestige ornaments such as this one in order to appropriate the power of crocodiles, fierce animals connected to the underworld since they float on water and drag their prey below to drown it. On this plaque the crocodilian being may be a creator god or a transformative image of the wearer. Smaller crocodiles surround the central figure, and the triangular border design simulates the animal’s protective ridgelike scales. The small holes around the border were probably used to attach the ornament to clothing.

<p>Heiltsuk artist. <i>House Post</i>, from a Set of Four, 19th century. Wáglísla, British Columbia, Canada. Cedar, 98 x 35<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>4</sub> x 17<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>2</sub> in. (248.9 x 89.5 x 44.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1911, Museum Collection Fund, 11.700.1</p>

Heiltsuk artist. House Post, from a Set of Four, 19th century. Wáglísla, British Columbia, Canada. Cedar, 98 x 3514 x 1712 in. (248.9 x 89.5 x 44.5 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1911, Museum Collection Fund, 11.700.1

This house post, part of a set of four and owned by the Heiltsuk eagle clan of Yálátli (Goose Island), depicts the following creation story. In the beginning of time, many inhabitants of the land were animals and supernatural creatures. Some could take off their fur and feathers and assume human shape, while others remained in their supernatural form. One day a supernatural eagle, with the face of a man and an eagle’s beak, saw a whale in the water and seized it for his food. After a mighty struggle the eagle flipped the whale over and began to devour it, spilling the whale’s intestines into the water, where they became Yálátli Island. The eagle decided to live on this island, becoming human and taking the name Wígvilhba (Eagle-nose), which was passed down through generations to the Wígvilhba Wákas Chieftainship, today held by Chief Harvey Humchitt.

<p>Huastec artist. <i>Life-Death Figure</i>, 900–1250. Possibly found at the site of Chilitujú near San Vicente Tancuayalab, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Sandstone, traces of pigment, 62<sup>3</sup>⁄<sub>8</sub> x 26 x 11<sup>1</sup>⁄<sub>2</sub> in. (158.4 x 66 x 29.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Frank Sherman Benson Fund and the Henry L. Batterman Fund, 37.2897PA</p>

Huastec artist. Life-Death Figure, 900–1250. Possibly found at the site of Chilitujú near San Vicente Tancuayalab, San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Sandstone, traces of pigment, 6238 x 26 x 1112 in. (158.4 x 66 x 29.2 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Frank Sherman Benson Fund and the Henry L. Batterman Fund, 37.2897PA

This sculpture of a man carrying a human skeleton on his back exemplifies the dualism of life and death that permeates Huastec and Mexica (Aztec) art. Representing life, the human figure is the Aztec wind god, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who created humankind and is identifiable by his J-shaped ear pendants. Representing death, the skeletal figure (not pictured) with a protruding heart wears a collar and skirt decorated with a half-circle motif that was associated with the sun and the planet Venus. Venus, called the morning star, was another important god, thought to pull the sun across the sky and down into the underworld. Densely patterned designs on the sculpture’s arms and legs include ears of corn, which, like the sun and Venus imagery, are related to agriculture, fertility, life, and death.

<p>Heiltsuk artist. <i>Ladle with Skull</i>, 19th century. Wáglísla, British Columbia, Canada. Cedar wood, bear fur, cord, pigment, 29 x 8<sup>3</sup>⁄<sub>4</sub> x 9<sup>5</sup>⁄<sub>16</sub> in. (73.7 x 22.2 x 23.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1905, Museum Collection Fund, 05.588.7297a–b</p>

Heiltsuk artist. Ladle with Skull, 19th century. Wáglísla, British Columbia, Canada. Cedar wood, bear fur, cord, pigment, 29 x 834 x 9516 in. (73.7 x 22.2 x 23.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1905, Museum Collection Fund, 05.588.7297a–b

Skull imagery is usually associated with the Tánis (Hamatsa) ceremony practiced by the Heiltsuk and Kwakwawa’wakw people. Young males are initiated into the community during a four-part ritual in which they are symbolically transformed from flesh-eating cannibals, a state equated with death, into well-behaved members of society. The skull thus symbolizes the rebirth of initiates as they come back from the dead. Skull items such as this one are sometimes used during the final stages of the ceremony: ritual feeding of the skull possibly by special ceremonial spoons such as this precede a ceremonial meal for the initiates.

Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas

Arts of the Americas Galleries, 5th Floor

Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas presents over one hundred masterpieces from our permanent Arts of the Americas collection, exemplifying the concept of transformation as part of the spiritual beliefs and practice of the region’s indigenous peoples, past and present. Themes of life, death, fertility, and regeneration are explored through pre-Columbian and historical artworks, including many pieces that are rarely on display.

Highlights include the Huastec Life-Death Figure, the Kwakwaka’wakw Thunderbird Transformation Mask, and two eight-foot-tall, nineteenth-century Heiltsuk House Posts made to support the huge beams of a great Northwest Coast plank house. Other featured objects include Hopi and Zuni kachinas, masks from throughout the Americas, Mexica (Aztec) and Maya sculptures, and ancient Andean textiles including the two-thousand-year-old Paracas Textile, which illustrates the way in which early cultures of Peru’s South Coast envisioned their relationship with nature and the supernatural realm.

Among the twenty-one objects that have rarely or never been on public view are a full-body bark-cloth mask made by the Pami’wa of Colombia and Brazil, a Maya effigy vessel in the form of a hunchback wearing a jaguar skin, and two contemporary kachinas by Hopi carver Henry Shelton.

Life, Death, and Transformation in the Americas is organized by Nancy Rosoff, Andrew W. Mellon Curator, Arts of the Americas, Brooklyn Museum; and Susan Kennedy Zeller, Associate Curator, Native American Art, Brooklyn Museum.

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