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At the Di Donna Galleries on Madison Avenue, the masks of the Yup’ik, an indigenous people related to the Inuit, seem to float off the dark blue walls where they hang, between paintings by Yves Tanguy and André Masson, Joan Miró and Enrico Donati, Victor Brauner and Wolfgang Paalen—all Surrealists, most of whom fled wartime Europe in the 1940s for New York. The connection between the Surrealists’ productions and the Yup’ik artefacts in the installation is never direct: they seem, rather, to have drifted together naturally.

The first mask on entering, from Goodnews Bay, Alaska, which once belonged to André Breton, has one round eye, carved out, and one slanted, like an almond set at an angle. The nostrils are lopsided; one is graced by whiskers, the other by a kind of eyebrow. A little wooden fish is poised to jump into the mask’s mouth. Hands emerge from its temples. Nearby is a painting by Joan Miró—Peinture, (La Sirène) (1927)—in which a flowing curvy figure consists of splotches of color, suggesting an arm or the tail of a siren, with a little fish poised over its face.

The masks are made of driftwood, from villages placed at the mouths of enormous rivers—the Yukon and Kuskokwim—in an arctic landscape with no trees. Spring flooding brought down large trunks, mostly cedar and fir, from the interior. “The mask was put on the dancer,” said Donald Ellis, who co-curated the show with Emmanuel Di Donna, “and as the dancer began to sing and dance, it was activated and became a conduit between the physical and the spiritual world.” The masks often have arms and hands, but never thumbs, so that the conduit would not be able to hold back the spirit summoned by the mask and traveling outward into the world. Many of the masks have a plate on the inside for the dancer to bite so that the mask would appear to float in front of the face. In fact, the Yup’ik term for mask translates to “face in front of the face,” or floating face. It took extraordinary skill to dance with a large mask held between the teeth. The ceremonial dances took place in the qasgiq, or “communal men’s house”—darkened spaces lit by whale-oil lamps in shallow stone bowls...

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