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Published April 24, 2024

Invisible Souls of Beau Dick’s Masks at Andrew Kreps Gallery

By Nina Chkareuli-Mdivani

Nina Chkareuli-Mdivani is Georgian-American curator, writer and researcher living in New York. Her ongoing research is focused on intergenerational trauma, and feminism in post-Soviet countries. She writes for different publications in the United States and Europe.

Installation image, Walas Gwa'yam / Big, Great Whale, Beau Dick. Image courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

In the exhibition Walas Gwa’yam/Big, Great Whale on view through May 11th at Andrew Kreps gallery in Tribeca, Canadian carver and activist, Beau Dick (1955-2017), displays his mastery of carved ceremonial masks from his Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Depicting men, women, wind, war spirit, otters, ancestors, celestial bodies, and birds, the masks each contain an aura of presence and in sum total communicate a system of belief–a microcosm of a distant culture. Dick facilitates this dual experience on micro and macro levels in a mysterious yet resonant way. Created in the spirit of potlatch–a communal fest of gift-giving among the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada, Dick’s masks each carry an element of belief natural to the Indigenous people of his land.

Made between 1979 and 2015, the works on view show a constant push and pull between a tradition and mastery. Across spacious gallery walls painted in light blue, ochre, and olive green, Dick’s masks present as completely contemporary objects without being at all removed from the artist’s roots.

Born in a Kwakwaka’wakw village of Alert Bay in British Columbia, Dick learned carving from an early age from his grandfather, father and other elders. Dick was also hereditary chief of the Namgis First Nation and although he moved in-between, he started and ended his life in Alert Bay. The artist carved the masks that surrounded him throughout his life journey.

Installation images, Walas Gwa'yam / Big, Great Whale, Beau Dick. Images courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

While the masks on view are sculptures, they also carry certain performative, theatrical characteristics, not dissimilar to the Noh theatrical tradition in Japan where men are able to turn into supernatural powers by channeling visible and invisible impulses of people around them. Beau Dick’s personification of the War Spirit is terrifyingly violent and yet, this represented violence is pulled into the domestic sphere as a mask. By acting out symbolic violence of the supernatural being, a dancer animating this mask- as it would be the case in a traditional village during religious ceremonies- is able to sublimate his aggression into a performance and to let it go from his body and mind.

Wind is carved as a black, white, and red benign figurehead with white feathers and o-shaped mouth, indicating a force of nature without even knowing the title. First Nation, Yagis, 2005 is a face of a long black-haired creature with blue eyes and green face, rectangular mouth and demeanor of a harpie. Some masks are more abstract in their handling of metaphorical weights. A carving of Crooked Beak from 1994 is that of a mythical bird figure that lives in the sky among the beings of complex Hamat’sa pantheon that governs human relationships. The pantheon of supernatural spirits among the Indigenous people and cultures that we see on display at the gallery are of immense sophistication adhering to complexities and shades of human nature and its interaction with the outside worlds.

Installation images, Walas Gwa'yam / Big, Great Whale, Beau Dick. Images courtesy of the Estate of the Artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York

Masks were typically worn during Indigenous ceremonies as marks of social hierarchy, but also to show belonging to a particular family. Potlatches, where masks such as these played major roles, were gift-giving ceremonies where members of the communities shared their possessions with less fortunate ones, thus providing for a certain redistribution of available resources. Between 1886 and 1951, these events were outlawed by the Government of Canada due to their ‘confusing’ character. Unsurprisingly, Indigenous people took this ban as a threat to their cultural heritage and fought tirelessly against it until the ban was fully abandoned. Beau Dick's artworks underline resilience and activism in preserving Indigenous traditions.

As the artist says in “Maker of Monsters: The Extraordinary Life of Beau Dick” a documentary shot about him in 2017, “the world has gone mad and it is up to the artists to pick up the pieces and make some new meanings.” Serving as a shaman and the elder of his culture in a turbulent time, Beau Dick offers a new way forward. Emotional ties between viewers and the masks are not intellectual and not fully emotional; we as a community have an archetypal connection to these carved faces.

We all want to be safe, free, and fortunate in a world that is becoming more fragmented and conflicting day by day. Looking at these masks we can draw a parallel to the resilience and resistance of the cultures and people who created them. Beau Dick’s work tells us to hang onto our humanity, our fears and myths: to act them out in ceremonial or symbolic ways, but also to remain in a community, to try to distribute our resources by any means necessary. Only by staying together could we survive this age of fragmentation, disillusion, rage, conflict and dehumanization.

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