Art / Indigenous & Aboriginal / Paris

Paris Notes: Hopi Katsinam Masks and Their Destiny

Trees by Keri Douglas

Trees by Keri Douglas

Paris, the city of art, fashion and architecture and it’s relatively modest auction house Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou are on the global stage of cultural heritage and who has the right to own another culture’s patrimony and sacred artifacts or relics. A decision will be made on Friday, April 12 by noon (Paris time) two hours before the scheduled opening for auction the destiny of this collection of Hopi masks.

Christopher Mazeika, scholar in ritual performance and art director at Paris based Santo Spada fashion house, shares his experience visiting curious this rare collection of Hopi masks from both an academic ritual object and decorative perspective.

With glaring lights illuminating intensely colored masks, a full room of potential buyers with Native American chants playing in the background, Mazeika originally intends to be an academic observer. Yet, he explains,

“My heart started beating faster, the range of colors. The masks are potent. They carry a force beyond their materiality. I was immediately entranced by these objects. As I looked around, I started to feel an immense and deep sadness. I didn’t know where it was coming from – not able to afford the objects or … what is this sadness, more to do with everything else. What these masks are/were and perhaps what they will no longer be?”

Therein lies the paradox of the sale of cultural heritage and a sacred objects. The desire to own a rare object and/or the desire to posses and be empowered by the sacredness of the object.

Sadness, too, that these masks were just part of the ceremonial ensemble. Illustrations accompany each mask and how they may have been worn during a ceremony. “A beheaded mask, in a way,” he explains, “on a stake.”

“These masks are not static objects,” Mazeika explains, “they have a center of gravity, extensions inform the body of the movement through the head. Certain masks can teach the dance of the mask. The dancer responds to the mask and how that particular mask should be danced. It is not mystical. No, it is based on geometry, the balance the mask demands.” Mazeika explains further, “The sadness is that usually a ritual mask, should not be seen out of its ritual context.”

Mazeika reflects,

“what did strike me today is that these masks are in a different category from sculpture or paintings. We must put something aside and be prepared to answer that these sort of artifacts are not paintings and are not sculptures. That there is a performative capacity and that then warrants a certain respect.”

Further inquiry is only natural. Mazeika went on to explain that once one begins to ask one question, others follow suit rapidly, from who made them, how, when, why … were these deconsecrated before taken, sold or gifted?

The story circulating at the auction house is that a French filmmaker who lived in the U.S. had visited the Hopi tribe – in what context isn’t know yet.

“The impact of tribal art can be seen in many 20th century master in art, Miro, Picasso, Brancusi, Le Corbusier in his modernists buildings. Now,” Mazeika explains, “there are different sensitivities, demands and more aware of cultural heritage.”

Mazeika shares a French phrase from the Museum Bourdelle of which accompanied a Japanse Noh mask,

“les choses apartiennent a ceux qui les comprennent”

in English,

“things belong to those that understand them.”

How does one choose from all of the masks, one for their red walled living room in New York or … mused Mazeika.  His voice begins to fade and says,

“In a way, it is quite awful. If I were a billionaire, I would buy the whole thing and at least return it to a Hopi museum. Wouldn’t you?”

As an afterthought Mazeika shares that while visiting the collection, a man taps him on the shoulder and returns his glove that had dropped to the floor. Mazeika observes this human gesture in front of 70 masks that the Hopi tribe would like returned and realizes how happy he was to have returned, just his glove.

“Could this be an omen,” Mazeika shares, “perhaps the Hopi masks will be given back to them as well.”

By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer, Washington, D.C. (Please follow 9 Muses News copyright use policy.)

The Results: The auction went forward, starting late, with loud objections in the audience. Skillfully, each of the 70 masks were presented, bid upon and sold. Total revenue was 930 million euros ($1,217 million) with the center piece mask purchased at 160,000 euros ($209,418).

An opportunity is at hand to create a coalition of interested organizations and supporters to educate and prevent such a blatant disregard for cultural artifacts, especially sacred objects valued by indigenous communities.

December 2013 – Annenberg Foundation purchases sacred items for second auction in Paris. Hopi Tribe responds in
Please note: Due to the nature of the masks and respect for the Hopi community, the photos of the masks have been removed.

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