Ex­hibit fea­tures Matisse, Yup’ik

French artist’s por­traits dis­played with Na­tive masks

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Terry Tang Associated Press

PHOENIX — Nearly 64 years after his death, Henri Matisse has be­come one of the few non-Na­tive Amer­i­cans to have an ex­hi­bi­tion at a Phoenix mu­seum ded­i­cated to Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture.

The lit­tle-known in­ter­sec­tion of one of the 20th cen­tury’s great­est artists and na­tive peo­ple in the Arc­tic re­gion is at the heart of a show that opened Mon­day at the Heard Mu­seum.

“It’s a story I didn’t know much about un­til 1998 when I be­came friendly with a mem­ber of the Matisse fam­ily,” said mu­seum di­rec­tor David Roche. “It truly took sev­eral years to ab­sorb it all. It spans cen­turies, cul­tures and con­ti­nents.”

“Yua: Henri Matisse and the In­ner Arc­tic Spirit” will fea­ture Matisse’s por­traits of the Inuit peo­ple, which have never been dis­played in the U.S. But the French artist, who died in 1954, will share the spot­light with Alaska Na­tives who in­flu­enced him. Yup’ik masks made by Alaskan Na­tives, some of which were col­lected by Matisse’s son-in­law dur­ing World War II, will be just as much a part of the ex­hibit.

The Heard is the only place show­cas­ing the un­con­ven­tional pair­ing.

“We have a lot of his­toric firsts in this par­tic­u­lar work,” said cu­ra­tor Sean Mooney. “We’re kind of do­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion within an ex­hi­bi­tion by hav­ing these two par­al­lel dis­plays of his­toric Yup’ik masks and this very spe­cific his­toric body of work by Matisse.”

Matisse is more widely lauded as a pi­o­neer in Fau­vism — a style char­ac­ter­ized by vivid col­ors and less con­trolled brush strokes. But he be­came in­ter­ested in indigenous cul­tures in the 1940s. Son-in-law Ge­orges Duthuit had ac­quired an ar­ray of the masks and other ma­te­ri­als while liv­ing in New York City as World War II broke out, Mooney said. In 1946, Duthuit re­turned to France with his col­lec­tion.

He and Matisse’s daugh­ter, Marguerite, sug­gested Matisse do three il­lus­tra­tions for a pro­posed book on the Arc­tic peo­ple. He made 50.

Matisse, ac­cord­ing to Mooney, looked at masks made of wood, feath­ers and other ma­te­ri­als, and two books with pho­to­graphs of Inuit men and women. The mu­seum will have sev­eral black-and-white por­traits, in­clud­ing char­coal draw­ings and lithographs. Taken with the cul­ture, Matisse even be­gan re­fer­ring to any por­trait he did as a mask.

“With a stroke, he cre­ated what he called masks,” said co-cu­ra­tor Chuna McIn­tyre, who is Cen­tral Yup’ik. “He got the essence. It’s amaz­ing — pared down, quiet in­te­rior, per­sonal cre­ations.”

Vil­lagers would tra­di­tion­ally tell sto­ries with the masks through song or dance, pay­ing re­spect to “yua.” Ac­cord­ing to the Yup’ik cul­ture, “yua” means spirit but can also re­fer to the spirit in­side liv­ing crea­tures, inan­i­mate ob­jects and their con­nec­tion to each other.

“Ev­ery­thing that ex­ists in this uni­verse has the po­ten­tial of yua be­cause it ex­ists here. That’s an old con­cept in Yup’ik,” McIn­tyre said. “There’s a whole grav­ity to it. Yua — it’s in a be­ing, it’s in a per­son.”

Yup’ik Eski­mos com­prise one of 11 dis­tinct cul­tures among Alaska Na­tives in the south­west part of the state, ac­cord­ing to the Alaska Na­tive Her­itage Cen­ter. Marge Nakak, a cul­tural host at the cen­ter, said masks are tra­di­tion­ally worn at annual fes­ti­vals be­tween Na­tive vil­lages dur­ing a gath­er­ing known as a pot­latch.

His­tor­i­cally, the masks were dis­carded after a cer­e­mony. Some­times they were burned or left on the tundra, Nakak said.

Some Amer­i­can In­dian cul­tures would not con­sider show­ing cer­e­mo­nial items such as masks be­cause they con­sider them to be liv­ing be­ings not meant for dis­play. Yup’ik peo­ple, on the other hand, tend to be more trans­par­ent, McIn­tyre said. He said the masks al­ways have been in­tended to be shared in pub­lic per­for­mance.

“We Yup’iks feel in terms of mu­seum col­lec­tions, mu­se­ums are care­tak­ers of our civ­i­liza­tions’ trea­sures. That’s im­por­tant to say,” McIn­tyre said.

In the early 20th cen­tury, the masks and Na­tive cul­tures in general gained a fol­low­ing among traders and col­lec­tors who were in­ter­ested in preser­va­tion, Mooney said. Many masks ended up in mu­se­ums. Ge­orge Gus­tav Heye, whose vast col­lec­tion of Na­tive Amer­i­can ob­jects shaped the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian, was one of the lead­ers in bring­ing ar­ti­facts to New York City, where they came into the or­bit of the French in­tel­li­gentsia.

Masks typ­i­cally are cre­ated in pairs or other group­ings to rep­re­sent sym­bolic re­la­tion­ships such as male and fe­male, or night and day. So, the show will mean re­unit­ing masks that have been sep­a­rated for, in some cases, a cen­tury, mu­seum di­rec­tor Roche said.

Some peo­ple may ques­tion giv­ing space at a mu­seum for Amer­i­can In­dian artists to a white, Euro­pean one. But Roche said the ex­hi­bi­tion has im­mense sup­port be­cause of its du­al­ity.

“The Heard has been a leader in pre­sent­ing Amer­i­can In­dian art with great sen­si­tiv­ity,” Roche said. “I think it’s mean­ing­ful that we are work­ing in this way. I think sto­ries, to be told well, of­ten have to be told from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives.”

Matisse will likely draw peo­ple who nor­mally wouldn’t go to the Heard and ex­pose them to Alaskan Na­tive cul­tures.

“That’s won­der­ful be­cause the only thing that is taught in the Lower 48 states is that Eski­mos live in igloos. Pe­riod,” said Nakak. “That’s it.”


Cu­ra­tor Sean Mooney checks the fi­nal in­stal­la­tion of an as­sort­ment of Yup’ik masks made by Alaskan Na­tives.


Draw­ings by French artist Henri Matisse in their first U.S. ex­hibit, one of few by non-Na­tives at the Heard Mu­seum.

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