The Northwest Coast art in our home includes many contemporary pieces. However, I am also fascinated by traditional pieces, particularly recreations of historical masks according to modern sensibilities. That is why, when John Wilson’s “Voices of Our Ancestors” (aka “Portrait Mask”) became available, I jumped at the chance to buy it.
“Voices of Our Ancestors” is based on two historical Haisla masks in J. C. H. King’s “Portrait Masks from the Northwest Coast of America,” a book first published in 1979. It is a mask well worth studying for its own sake, all the more so because examples of Haisla design are relatively rare. When you do see them, you have no trouble placing the Haisla geographically, because their art often seems like a combination of Kwakwaka’wakw and Tsimshian traditions. Nor is Wilson’s mask an exception.
However, what especially interests me is Wilson’s reinterpretation of the historic masks. To start with, Wilson chooses a less rounded, more northern shape for the mask. This change is accompanied by some changes in proportions, such as a wider space between the lips and nose, and a higher placement of the ears. He has also decided not to include the teeth that are in the originals, and replaced the originals’ rounded eyes with more smaller, more slanted ones. In addition, the cheekbones of Wilson’s mask are far less prominent than in the originals. The result is a less human, more supernatural look – a fitting change, considering that the mask is a work of a modern man looking back on the past.
Another noticeable difference is in the selection of colors. This difference is not just a matter of what was available; one of the older masks actually has a brighter red than the one that Wilson uses. By contrast, even allowing for aging, the historical piece has a more subdued blue than Wilson uses. Wilson also accents the red by drawing thicker formlines, and using it in places where the historical piece uses blue.
Wilson has followed the general designs of the original, including the stylized mustache and goatee, but almost always he has put his own interpretation on them. For instance, he has taken the rows of parallel lines just visible on the colored original, and added them as a design element below the nose, replacing the rather uninspired blobs of cross-hatching, and perhaps suggesting mustache stubble.
However, the largest difference between Wilson’s mask and its inspiration is in the form lines. Although formline influence is obvious in the originals, Wilson’s formlines are more disciplined, with more variation in thickness and more balance. For instance, where the formlines on the forehead in the original meets above the left eye, Wilson’s meet between the eyes. Similarly, where the original has formlines meet on on the cheeks, Wilson’s meet at the nostril.
Probably the most obvious difference in the design is on the cheeks, where the formline helps to replace the cross-hatching, and the blue u-shapes are greatly reduced in size. Even more importantly, the red formline that follows the line of the cheek curves upwards rather than downwards as in the original, doing more than any single element to make the modern mask less human and more arresting than the originals.
“Spirit of Our Ancestors” is obviously influenced by the sources that Wilson acknowledges, but clearly it is more than imitation, or an unthinking copying of a classical piece. Wilson’s mask is more balanced piece of work than either of the originals, with a stronger northern influence as well. Although somewhat of a new direction for Wilson, it more than succeeds on its own terms. Wilson has not simply copied, but repeatedly improved as well.