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Mythology in art.

What do conjurers, shapeshifters, alchemists, transformers and tricksters all have in common besides the magical grip they hold on our collective imagination? They are present in nearly every culture's mythology, folklore and legends. And, to the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest, there is no more clever a trickster than the raven. This month's Clip & Save Art Print features a transformation mask depicting a raven, created by Haida master artist Charles Edenshaw (1839-1920).

To the Haida, the indigenous people of British Columbia, ravens assume a place of prominence in many of their creation stories, such as "How Raven Stole the Sun," "Raven and the Man Who Sits on the Tides" and "Raven Finds the First Men."

"In northern Northwest Coast mythology, Raven is the powerful figure who transforms the world. Stories tell how Raven created the land, released the people from a cockle shell and brought them fire. Raven stole the light and brought it out to light up the world. Yet Raven is a trickster--often selfish, hungry and mischievous. He changes the world only by cleverly deceiving others in his never-ending quest for food." (

The raven is also a key figure in Haida art. Totem poles, masks, canoes, jewelry and other Haida art forms commonly depict the raven. In 2006, the Vancouver Art Gallery launched Raven Travelling: 200 years of Haida Art, a major exhibition that explored "how Haida art reflects the mythological realm through examples of the Raven figure as trickster, transformer and creator." To learn more about Haida culture, visit

ABOUT THE ARTWORK According to, a transformation mask is "a large mask with movable parts that can be opened and closed." This month's Art Print is an exquisite example of such a mask, depicting the legendary trickster of Haida mythology, the raven.

The concept of transformation is a fundamental belief of Native Northwest Coast Indians. They believe that "humans and animals can change forms--a killer whale transforms into a wolf, for instance, or a bear becomes a person. At their homes, animals shed their skins, revealing that they are human beings underneath. Transformations also may happen as a spirit moves between the realms of the universe--from the ocean or sky to the land." (

According to Nika Collison--curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum and a Haida historian--Haida people say this carving depicts the oral history, "Raven with the broken beak," where Raven transforms himself into a woman to trick a village and steal their food. Raven in the form of a woman is represented in the inner markings of the mask. She is wearing a labret (lip ornament), indicating high rank.

Made of cedar, alder wood, leather, fur and feathers of a young snowy owl, the mask when closed depicts a raven; when opened (as pictured), the face of raven in human form. The face is flanked by the two interior sides of the beak revealing excellent examples of "flat design," an intricate form of bas-relief found in Haida art.

Because the back of the mask is mounted on a board as opposed to being hollowed out, experts believe the mask may have been held above the dancer's head or intended only for display.

Attached to the top of the mask is a small human figure, perhaps representing the "Wanderer" or man's first ancestor. The mask opens and closes by pulling the two strings that are attached to the beak and run through the rear of the backing plate. Additionally, the beak is made from four separate parts and can "clap" when operated.
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Title Annotation:CLIP & SAVE ART NOTES; Haida art
Author:Carroll, Colleen
Publication:Arts & Activities
Geographic Code:1CBRI
Date:Mar 1, 2013
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