Art

An Indigenous Artist’s Futuristic Vision of Traditional Transformation Masks

In Shawn Hunt: Transformation, the Heiltsuk artist expands traditional forms and experiments with new media and painting.

Shawn Hunt, “Transformation Mask,” mixed media (2017, photo by Microsoft Vancouver, courtesy Audain Art Museum)

WHISTLER, British Columbia — In an exhibition closing today at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler, Canada, visitors encounter a sleek black robotic Raven mask, its plastic 3D-printed beak and head highlighted with strips of bright LEDs. Its eyes are phone screens, animated with emotive red pupils as if the trickster-figure Raven has taken on the guise of an 80s-era Terminator.

The sculptural and “mixed reality” piece, a collaboration between Hunt and the Microsoft Garage studio, is part of Shawn Hunt: Transformation, a show by Heiltsuk artist Shawn Hunt that responds to strong international interest in the theme of transformation in Indigenous art. Hunt demonstrates the transformative possibilities of Northwest Coast art today by expanding traditional forms and experimenting with new media and painting.

A transformation mask designed by the Nuxalk artist Marven Tallio at National Gallery of Canada (via Flickr user bella_velo)

The form of the mask is based on historic Northwest Coast transformation masks, ceremonial regalia used in dances by many tribes up and down the coast. In the gallery, Hunt’s mask has been juxtaposed with “Eagle Transformation Mask” (1990) by famed Haida artist Robert Davidson, to demonstrate Hunt’s departure from more canonical and traditionalist approaches to mask-making. But the better comparison to capture the spirit of the transformation mask is downstairs, where the museum’s dimly lit collection of historic Northwest Coast masks includes “Raven Transformation Mask” (c.1860-80) by an unknown Nuxalk artist. Such masks captured the imagination of Euro-American artists and anthropologists with their ingenious construction: by pulling a series of draw-strings, the wearer can pull the beak apart to theatrically reveal another face hidden inside.

In the case of Hunt’s “Transformation Mask,” the drama unfolds as the viewer steps inside the mask, transforming the sculpture into human-raven cyborg. Motors whirr to bring the mask to life as it opens its beak, revealing the wearer inside, face lit with a red glow, looking through the glass of the augmented reality technology HoloLens. A short video begins to play, visible only to the mask-wearer, as a digital rendering of a fire crackles on the real plinth several steps in front of the mask. From the flames emerge the lambent forms of a raven, whale, and eagle, depicted in the simple flowing lines of Northwest Coast formline design, drawn by Hunt using a 3D drawing tool.

Shawn Hunt, “Transformation Mask,” mixed media (2017, photo by Microsoft Vancouver, courtesy Audain Art Museum)

“Transformation Mask” does not simulate a specific Indigenous ceremony, but its digital transformation of the gallery is meant to emulate the experience of dancing and wearing a transformation mask. “The mask is about bridging, and my intent really was to bring the non-Indigenous viewer into that cultural world,” Hunt told Hyperallergic. “When you go look at our masks you are generally going to a gallery or museum, and in that context the masks are not masks but rather sculptures, not something you can wear or interact with.”

The Audain Museum calls “Transformation Mask” a “hybrid between the physicality of a transformation mask and the ephemeral experience of being part of the transformation.” But the installation, and transformation masks in general, might better be understood as an interface. “They are an interface with the unseen, whether it be the spirit world or the internet,” Hunt said. Through his creation, the viewer briefly inhabits another experience, another world and culture.

The museum also presents Hunt’s large, portrait-like renditions of mythical archetypes and legends, whose faces burst into lurid planes of carved masks and formline elements. These “Mask-Faces,” as Hunt calls them, fold the baroque drama of the transformation mask into two dimensions. In “Forest Spirit/Raven Wolf Mask Face” (2017), the eyes of the bright green Mask-Face belong to two intertwined wolf and raven heads, depicted naturalistically with wooden features yet also human hair and an ear. In “Remembering the Flood/Raven Frog Mask” (2017), an orange figure in a canoe seems ready to crest the wave-like blue forehead of a face, which is also a raven and a frog. Hunt has long been interested in the idea of the face as a kind of mask; these paintings seem to fluctuate between a face and a mask at the same time.

Shawn Hunt, “Forest Spirit/Raven Wolf Mask Face,” acrylic on canvas, 182.9 x 129.5 cm (2017, courtesy of artist and Macaulay & Co. Fine Art)

The influence of Euro-American modernism is clear in these paintings — the fragmented planes and projecting volumes of the faces seem Cubist, while the naturalism combined with mythical archetypes and dream-like figures recalls Surrealism. Many Surrealists took a keen interest in Northwest Coast Native art. “Modernists looked towards Indigenous art to begin to fracture the face and human body and create something new,” Hunt said. “They took our art and incorporated it into their work to evolve what we know as art. So I find it interesting to take it back, full circle.”

Hunt has explored the boundaries of formline design for much of his career. Also in the exhibition are two grisaille paintings from 2016, which show sinuous ghostly figures who seem to be themselves mid-transformation, as human and animal faces emerge at different points of their torsos. Hunt describes these works as “neo-formline.” The current exhibition also overlooks a gallery in the permanent collection that houses two of Hunt’s earlier paintings, “Traditional Evolution. Raven Steals My Light” and “Supermarket Eagle” (both 2013). The result could be considered a pop-up retrospective of Hunt’s recent oeuvre.

Installation view of Shawn Hunt: Transformation at Audain Art Museum

Hunt subverts discussions of authenticity and tradition by hurtling past them, in a wide variety of media. His work gives us a digitally-enhanced, sidelong glimpse of an Indigenous ceremonial world and experience. There remains a potential critique of works like “Transformation Mask.” Many Indigenous artists and activists advocate for a politics of refusal, which withholds sensitive ritual material from non-Indigenous voyeurs, in order to avoid the fetishizing of Indigenous culture — and it is possible that the audience of “Transformation Mask” might seem voyeuristic and desiring. Yet by avoiding specific stories and rituals, and offering up a simulation as a site for empathy, this exhibition seems to sidestep that critique. Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in The Way of the Masks that “a mask is not primarily what it represents but what it transforms, that is to say, what it chooses not to represent.” In the work of Shawn Hunt, the mask, painted or robotic, does not just represent transformation but is the site of it, the interface to another world.

Shawn Hunt, “Transformation Mask,” mixed media (2017, photo by Microsoft Vancouver, courtesy Audain Art Museum)

Shawn Hunt: Transformation is on view at Audain Art Museum (4350 Blackcomb Way, Whistler, Canada) until April 9.

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