- George Walkus, Kwakwaka'wakw, Canadian, about 1890 - about 1950
- Work Locations: British Columbia
- Active Dates: 1920s - 1930s
About the Artist
This mask was carved by George Walkus, an artist we know very little about. He was an active carver in the 1920s and 1930s. Walkus was a member of the Kwakwaka’wakw [KWALK-WALK-ya-WALK-wuh] Indian Tribe from Northern Vancouver Island and British Columbia. The Kwakwaka’wakw are known for their skillful wood carvings, particularly their masks and totem poles. Individual carvers often attempt to leave a personal mark on the objects they carve by creating slight variations to the traditional mask form. Because masks like this one were commissioned for a specific purpose and were meant to create a certain dramatic effect, the best carvers were highly sought after.
What Inspired It
Masks are an important part of ritual dances and aid in telling the stories of the tribe. They often depict important animals and ancestral spirits. Masks like this one are worn during the dances of the Hamat’sa society, the highest ranking Kwakwaka’wakw dancing society. This mask represents the Crooked Beak of Heaven, or the Cannibal Spirit, who is an integral character in the Hamat’sa winter dances. The wide, flat mouth and curved beak distinguish this kind of mask. It is worn by members who appear during the society’s initiation ceremony. The dance revolves around a young initiate to the society who is kidnapped and taken into the woods by the Cannibal Spirit. The boy, on the verge of manhood, becomes wild and needs a series of songs and dances to tame him. The entire dance tells the story of his capture and return to the human world.
Winter dances are highly dramatic and are performed inside dimly lit structures around a central fire. George Walkus used a variety of techniques to enhance the theatrical effect of the mask. The colors, for example, had to be visible in the dim lighting. Walkus used bold blocks of red and black color and painted white around the eyes to reflect light from the ceremonial fire. Rhythmic designs draw the viewer’s eyes to certain parts of the mask—the characteristic curve of the largest bird’s beak, the prominent nostrils, and the beaks of the three smaller birds—and bring these areas to life. Walkus attached cedar-bark fringe to the bottom of the mask in order to camouflage the wearer. The fringe sways with the dancer as he crouches, jumps, and moves throughout the room. Sound is crucial to the drama of the mask’s appearance. Hidden inside is a series of strings that the dancer uses to open and close the beaks, creating a loud clapping noise. The movement and sound created by the beaks add surprise and drama to the ritual, emphasizing the voracious nature of the spirit. Walkus outlined each bird’s mouth with red, making the movement of the beak even more striking. The viewer sees only the external beauty of the mask, never realizing the complexity of its operation.
The Crooked Beak is the largest bird seen here and is recognized by the large arched beak. A crane sits on top of the Crooked Beak bird and has a slight raise to its beak. Two raven heads project from the back of the mask.
Below the mask is a shield made of bark fibers that come from the yellow cedar. This serves to camouflage the wearer during the dance. In addition, dancers wear a cape of shredded cedar bark that falls to their ankles, enhancing the effect of movement. Bark is also attached to the top of each bird creating a feather-like effect.
Walkus used traditional colors to paint the mask. Black serves as the primary color, red outlines the nostrils and lips, and white can be found in and around the eyes. Paint adds to the dramatic effect of the dance as light reflects off of the shiny mask.
Concealed somewhat in the mouths of the birds are strings that were used to move the birds’ beaks. The beaks can be snapped one at a time or all together. During the dance, viewers would not be able to see the intricate network of strings that was hidden inside the mask.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- The artist, Walkus, used very few colors on his mask. Have the students pick three colors for a painting or drawing and have them use only those three colors. Afterwards, have them write how the use of three colors felt for them—was it challenging or freeing? Both?