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Transformation Mask

Carved Haida Raven mask
Made by Charles Edenshaw, 1882–1890
Haida, Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands), British Columbia, Canada

The Haida people live on Haida Gwaii (formerly Queen Charlotte Islands) in British Columbia, Canada. Traditionally, the Haida believe in supernatural beings who can change their appearance to take on human or animal forms. This transformation was often acted out in dances or plays with the help of masks like this. The mask is not hollowed out at the back so may been hoisted on a pole rather than worn over the face. It can be opened and closed by a system of strings. When closed, the mask portrays Raven – a powerful figure in Haida culture – in its animal, ‘Creator’ form and when open (as shown), Raven is transformed into a human female – a noblewoman in fact, indicated by the labret (lip plug) she wears.

This mask was made by Charles Edenshaw (1839–1924) of Masset, a tribal chief and one of the great masters of Haida art. He could recite hundreds of Raven stories from memory. Edenshaw made paintings, totem poles, argillite jewellery and engravings in silver and gold, but very few masks, so this item – carved from yellow cedar and decorated in snowy owl feathers – is very rare. The motifs were drawn freehand, not with stencils, and according to contemporary Haida artists who came to Oxford to study the mask, the slightly less perfect forms on the left half of the beak may have been the work of an apprentice, copying Edenshaw’s more symmetrical designs on the other side.