Northwest Coast Native Art: Komokwa, Masks, and Killer Whales
Assembled by Jodi Dimter
Historical / Cultural Significance
Of major importance in Kwakiutl myth, Komokwa
was King of the Undersea World, Master and Protecter of the Seals,
who were a symbol of wealth. His name means "Wealthy One", and he ruled
from a great, rich house under the water. His house contained great wealth
in blankets, coppers, and other treasures. Many human supplicants of
legendary history tried to reach this kingdom and those ancestral heroes
who achieved their goal became wealthy and powerful, returning to their home
village with magical boxes full of treasure.
Much more important to some coastal cultures than to others, and
the motivations for mask wearing are as diverse as the masks themselves. Yet
it can be said fairly that, for all parts of the coast, masks are the means
by which the supernatural world is made visible. They may represent powerful
spirit helpers whose potency infuses a shaman or dramatic manifestations of
fabled creatures of family history.
The Killer Whale was an important character of Northwest
Coast mythology, generally as a clan ancestor associated with sea beings,
particularly Komokwa. The Killer Whale was generally represented by masks
so large that they might be called body masks, since they partially covered
the body. The mask was supported on the dancer's back and his hands were thus
left free to manipulate the strings that moved the various appendenges.
Principles and Elements of Design
An important element of the cedar plank masks is color. Black,
blue, and red are imaginatively applied, creating balance within the entire piece.
Color is used to define each of the parts of the head as well as shape. Traditionally,
just as today, paints were made from materials. Northwest Coast Indians produced
red from iron oxide, black from graphite, and white from lime and burnt clamshells.
Blue paint from the northern part of the coast has been analysed to be iron silica.
All of these materials were mixed with oils, quite often salmon eggs, to make paint.
There is the avoidance of empty space where a design form or line will add to
the interest of complexity. This embellishment is, however, done with sufficiant
restraint to maintain a proper integral balance of line, form, and carving.
Geometric and freeform design. Some designs sometimes seem to represent
internal body parts, sometimes external appendages, and sometimes magical powers. These
special designs are both angular and loose, free forms. A prominent form which is used to
depict the body parts is the "U-form". It frequently depicts feathers and ears.
Texture supplies variation in the design. The carved cross-hatching can be
echoed by the use of painted cross-hatching.
Curves are emphasized on nostrils, eyes, and lips, by deeply incised carvings, contrasting
color, or both. Nearly all lines, whether incised or painted, have a tendancy to run
parallel and taper to a terminal point to each end.
The masks were carved in 3-dimensional form.
Integration with Music, Dance, Drama
Northwest Coast Indian art and culture could easily be integrated with
drama, music, and dance. The class could study the ceremonies in greater
detail. Listening to the music and experimenting with different drums and rattles as well as
exploring the different dances would be very interesting. Through
literature students could learn about different legends and myths of the Native
culture and drama could be easily integrated (i.e. role play and reader's theatre).
For more Northwest and West Coast Native art ideas you can
West Coast Native Art
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