Archive for the 'painting' Category

Object: Maya Mask

Figure 1    Maya "Wolf" Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Figure 1 Maya “Wolf” Mask from the Ethnology Collection of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

Cakchiquel (Kakchiquel) Maya
Chimaltenango: San Andrés Itzapa, Guatemala
Materials: Painted wood

This wooden face mask has been painted red, with green polka dots, black eyes, and black and white detail behind the ears. This particular mask shows a face with an open mouth displaying carved wooden teeth. The eyes of the mask have been made by carving holes and surrounding the eyes with black paint. The eyebrows are also painted black, and the ears are carved and painted just above the eyebrows. On the sides of the mask are wooden flaps painted black and white, a striking color difference from the mostly red background and spotted green on the rest of the mask. On the forehead of the mask, there is a small hole, probably for hanging the mask.

The mask is sized to fit on a human face. It is 8 ¾ inches long, 7 inches wide, and 4 ¼ inches thick. It was accessioned into the Sam Noble Museum’s Ethnology Collection with only a few scratches in the paint on the nose, forehead, and ears – overall, in good condition. When accessioned, it was determined that the animalistic features on the mask were meant to resemble a wolf. It seems like an unsuitable animal inspiration for the Chimaltenango region of Guatemala (where wolves are not native), possibly meaning that it takes its likeness from another predator.

Instead of a wolf, which does not live in the region this mask was made, the mask may actually be meant to resemble a jaguar. Jaguars have always had important significance to Maya culture, playing an integral role in the Maya creation story. Many successful Maya kings and leaders were known for having the same feline characteristics associated with the jaguar. The jaguar is often the symbol for life and fertility. It is also seen as existing outside of the human realm, giving it associations with the underworld. In the Chimaltenango region specifically, jaguars can be black or yellow with black spots. While the mask in the Ethnology Collection at the Sam Noble Museum is red with green spots, the jaguar seems like a more likely option for inspiration than the wolf.

In order to understand why these seemingly odd paint choices might have been made, it is useful to look at the significance of these colors in Maya culture. Traditionally, red and black were popular in Maya cave art. Red pigment was originally made from the red clay dirt found in or near the caves themselves. In ancient times, Maya temples were painted in red and white colors. The red, white, and black paint on this contemporary mask follow along with this long-standing tradition.

Without speaking directly to the artist, of course, the intentions and inspirations behind this particular mask cannot be known for certain. However, it seems safe to say the original identification of the mask as “wolf-like” is most likely incorrect. Because this mask follows Maya tradition in paint colors, it seems more likely that the artist chose the more traditional jaguar native to the Chimaltenango region to inspire this mask.

[Caitlin Doepfner]

More sources:

Fischer, Edward F., and R. McKenna Brown. 1996. Maya Cultural Activism in Guatemala. Austin: University of Texas Press.

National Geographic. N.d. Jaquar: Panthera Onca. National Geographic. Accessed February 15, 2015.

Lovgren, Stefan. 2004. Masks, Other Finds Suggest Early Maya Flourished. National Geographic. Accessed June 16, 2015.



Object: Porcelain Dish

Dynastic China
Qing Dynasty, ca. 1796-1820
Materials: Porcelain, assorted colored glazes

Porcelain is made from a special type of clay called Kaolin, giving porcelain its distinctive white color.  The Kaolin is processed, shaped by the potter, given a primary glaze and then fired to over 1200°C to make the undecorated object. The porcelain is then ready for the application of colorful enamels, which make up the surface decoration.  With a second firing, the enamels bind to the glaze forming a smooth, bright surface.

The porcelain ceramic style was first developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and became popular with the Chinese Emperors. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279) mass production of porcelain began with many of these beautiful objects being exported.  Porcelain became popular with the wealthy in Europe during the Medieval Period but the techniques remained a trade secret until German alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger successfully recreated them in 1708. Böttger’s work is an early example of industrial espionage as Böttger used reverse engineering techniques that remain popular in a wide range of modern industries.

This Qing Ceramic Dish are decorated with many colorful fruits and butterflies which demonstrate the influences of the European style through enamels and symbols. With such high demand and variation in the works, forgeries are common. Many of the porcelain pieces for sale today are imitations of the classic porcelain style. This great demand has also revitalized traditional porcelain techniques ushering in a golden age for hand-crafted Chinese porcelain.The following video demonstrates how porcelain bowls are made using an electric potter’s wheel instead of traditional foot powered wheel.

Work Cited

Asia Society the Collection in Context. “Dish.” 2007.

Gates, William C. “Asian Art Galleries: A History of Porcelain.”

Koh, NK. “Relationship between Falangcai, Yangcai, Fencai, and Famille rose.” November,

McGregor, John. “Porcelain: A Short History from 1708 to World War I.” 2005.

Nilsson, Jan-Erik. “Marks on Later Chinese Porcelain.” 2000. china-marks.htm

“Ten Rules on ‘How to Deal with Fakes.” 2000.

Seattle Art Museum. “Glossary.” In Porcelain Stories: From China to Europe.

[Travis Bates}

Photo Quiz Answer!

Thanks to everyone who took the quiz last week!

Now, what is this object?

Preparring the Headdress cropped


This large painted mural, measuring 8 feet 5 inches long by 4 feet 3 inches high, is by renowned Cheyenne painter Archie Blackowl (Indian name: Mis Ta Moo To Va (Flying Hawk)). Done in acrylic paint on canvas, this painting depicts nine human figures (three women and six men) siting inside of a tipi engaged in a ceremony.  A blue tipi liner with rows of beadwork covering its surface and round beaded medallions at its upper edge decorates the area behind the figures.  A painted buffalo skull is displayed on the wall of the tipi in the center of the scene.  Two headdresses and a pipe bag are resting on the ground near the figures, and two of the figures are holding hand drums. The painting is completed in what is considered traditional “flatstyle” (or Bacone style), where there is no real desire to depict depth, or three-dimensional space. Instead, bold colors and lines, influenced in part by the Art Deco style, emphasize ethnographic accuracy of the scene.

Archie Blackowl (23 Nov 1911 – Sep 1992), who worked from the mid- to late-20th century, was trained at Ft. Sill Indian School in Lawton, OK, the Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, KS, the Chicago Art Institute, and the University of Oklahoma. Blackowl led a varied life working as a teacher, an industrial painter for the aircraft industry, and even employed by Walt Disney Studios. But, his passion was always painting. Encouraged by his mentor Woodrow Wilson (Woody) Crumbo, Blackowl played a pivotal role in mid-20th century Native American art. Considered one of the most important Oklahoma traditional painters, Blackowl’s work captured the traditional Southern Plains culture and life. “Leave a mark. Put something down so that when the young people see it they will understand.” –Archie Blackowl, July, 1975

Drop by the University of Oklahoma’s Oklahoma Memorial Union to see this amazing piece for yourself! Just head to the second floor of the Union, and it will be on the North Wall of Beaird Memorial Lounge!

[Stephanie Lynn Allen]

Object: Love sticks

E/1952/1/4 a-b
Pair of love sticks
Chuuk (formerly Truk) island group, Micronesia
ca 1952
Materials: Wood and paint

This object is a pair of so-called “love sticks” from the Chuuk (formerly Truk) island group in Micronesia. These sticks were carved by men of the Chuuk island group as a part of their courtship traditions. Each man would carve his own unique pattern on to his love stick that could be identified by the single women in the village. According to tradition, when a man was interested in courting a woman for marriage the man would poke his love stick into the wall of her hut. The woman would then identify her suitor by the carvings on the love stick and decide if she was also interested in him. If she was interested she would pull the stick inside her hut, if she wasn’t interested she would push it out.

The Chuuk island group has seen a dramatic increase in anthropological and archaeological research since World War II. The Japanese took over control of the islands in 1914 and established a naval base in the lagoon that was in use during World War II. The lagoon still contains many wrecked ships and planes. During the war the native culture of the Chuuk islands suffered greatly. Many of the Truk people were either killed or wounded during the war and most were forced out of their homes to make way for Japanese military personnel stationed on the islands. On February 17-18, 1944 the United States launched an attack on the Japanese naval base in the Chuuk lagoon, called Operation Hailstone. The attack lasted two days and included a combination of airstrikes, surface ship actions, and submarine attacks. In the end, 16 Japanese war ships, and over 250 Japanese aircraft were destroyed. The Japanese were not able to restore full base operations on Chuuk which eliminated one of the largest threats to the Allied forces in the central Pacific.  The following video is an excerpt from an interview with a eyewitness to the Operation Hailstone attack. [Kathryn S. (Barr) McCloud]

Object: African Sowo Mask

Mende: Sowo Mask
Guinea Coast, Africa
Date Unknown
Materials: Carved wood, paint

The Sande Society is made up of female members throughout the western coast of Africa. The Mende are one of the several cultures that practice the Sande ideology. Mende groups live in the regions presently known as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. This mask exemplifies the characteristics of “secret society” masks that are used among the Mende members.

The Mende term for this type of mask is Sowo Mask. The mask is used in Sande ceremonial and ritual activities. The Sande Society is perceived as secret because many of the actual rituals and values are not shared with outsiders. Every Mende female goes into the Sande Society. Sande influences the social, physical and emotional development of a woman during her lifetime. Members of the Sande Society promote female empowerment, beauty and personal identity as well. Female Mende members are young girls when Sande members initiate them. During the initiation rituals, elder members actually wear masks like the one pictured above. Raffia and cloth from the neck down complete the Sande dress.

The Sowo mask itself is not the symbol of Sande. The mask does, however represent ideal images of wealth, good health and status. During the initiation ceremony, it also possesses the spirit of a water deity. The mask pictured above is adorned with elaborate and tightly rolled coils of hair. The largest and most highly decorated elements of the masks are the coiffures. Some masks are embellished with birds or snakes on the hair. Many of the masks share characteristic slit eyes. The mask pictured above has a single, vertical line that lies through each eye. It may possibly symbolize cicatrization, which is common with Sowo masks.

The production of Sowo masks are often commissioned to local men. They make the masks out of wood because it is functional and durable. They are painted with black paint, shoe polish or oil. This provides a shiny appearance and keeps it cleaner. In the Sande Society, it is very important that the masks are elaborate and have aesthetic appeal. By conservative estimates, the Sande Society has been active for several hundred years! Sowo masks are unique in that the Sande Society is the only indigenous organization in Africa in which women customarily wear masks.

[Alana Cox]

Object: Haida Hat

Haida: Men’s Hat
British Columbia, Canada
ca 1880
Materias: wood, pigment

This object is a conical shaped Haida hat made out of twined cedar wood. It is painted with a red and black abstract motif.

The Haida Indians are native to the northern parts of British Columbia in the Queen Charlotte Islands. They are often employed in the logging industries, fishing and the arts. The abundant resource of wood has allowed them to incorporate canoes, totem poles and hats into their art and ceremonial traditions.

This men’s hat probably served as clan hat. Hats were the most important items of dress among Northwest Coast tribes. Families display their clans or crests on masks and clothing. The most important occasions for such displays are the potlatches. Clothing elements worn at potlatch ceremonies display clan affiliation. The Haida belong to one or two clans, the Eagle or the Raven clan. Both animals are held in high regard, but the Raven is accredited with various components of creation and is considered to be the cultural hero of the Haida.

Haida and other Northwest Coast objects are very distinct. This hat represents the common use of red and black pigment. Black is typically the primary color, whereas red is the secondary color. The unique use of formlines and abstract shapes complement the color scheme on this mask. Like other Haida masks, this was likely woven by a woman and painted by a man. The traditional gender division of labor is still practiced today. This mask was made during the late 19th century during a time that Northwest Coast art production was at a slump. A resurgence of the traditional art occurred during the second half of the 20th century. While this hat is presently in fragile condition, it once likely served as a durable ceremonial element for its owner.

[Alana Cox]

Object: Hopi Figurine

Hopi: Kachina Figurine
20th century
Materials: Pottery, clay, paint

This ceramic figurine is a Hopi representation of a kachina, a spiritual being in Puebloan religions commonly referred to as kachina cults. Kachinas are messengers for the Hopi, delivering prayers and offerings to gods for fertility and health. There are several hundred different kachinas which can each be identified by their unique mask and costume. Every kachina has a specific purpose. The iconography providing evidence for the first kachinas is found in the archaeological record in northeastern Arizona, dating as far back as 1300 C.E.

Historically, kachina dolls were carved out of cottonwood by uncles in the Pueblo, to be given to their nieces during ceremonial dances. During these ceremonies, men of the pueblo wear kachina masks, fully embodying the kachina spirit itself rather than merely dressing as the kachina. The Powamuya, or Bean Dance, is an example of such a ceremony and serves as a rite of passage for young girls. The dance ensures good health for the girls and fertility for the bean seeds, which are then planted on the last day of the ceremony. For a period of sixteen days, the kachinas maintain a large fire to keep the seeds warm as they walk around inspecting, blessing and guarding the bean seeds. This continues until the sixteenth day, when the germinated seeds are distributed in a public ceremony and planted by participants, in hopes of a successful harvest.

Kachina dolls are still used today as an educational tool, telling stories to convey their role as messengers between the earth and the spirit world. Furthermore, it is now acceptable for men to give kachina dolls to children and adults alike, both male and female, and regardless of familial ties. Today, contemporary Hopi artists combine time-honored conventional techniques with personal creative license, creating modern interpretations of the tradition of crafting Hopi kachina dolls. Click here to watch a video about how kachina carving techniques have changed during the past century!

[Anna Rice]

Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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