FRAME|WORK: Sedna with Mask by Susie Silook

The New Year presents a much-needed opportunity for reflection and renewal. Looking towards the future, New Year’s resolutions often promise some variation of transformation as we aim to improve ourselves and our lives. Transformation is also the focus of this week’s FRAME|WORK, which features Susie Silook’s Sedna with Mask. This artwork is currently on display in the Art of the Americas gallery at the de Young.

Susie Silook (American, Siberian Yupik and Inupiaq, b. 1960). Sedna with Mask, 1999. Walrus tusk, sea mammal whiskers, baleen, whale bone, metal, pigment. Bequest of Thomas G. Fowler. 2007.21.389

Susie Silook is one of Alaska’s preeminent contemporary artists. Silook, who is Siberian Yupik and Inupiaq, learned how to carve from various members of her family. Traditionally, the art of carving was almost exclusively the responsibility of men; thus, Silook’s mastery of the technique is a bold departure from historic Eskimo art practices. Her dexterous ivory sculpture does, however, find its root in the finely carved ivory figures of her native Saint Lawrence Island.

This delicately carved sculpture depicts an Eskimo sea goddess, or sedna. In her hand, the wispy goddess holds a Yup'ik mask–a series of segmented discs emerge from the mask’s forehead. These circular discs represent walrus air bubbles, an indication that the sedna goddess is in the process of transformation. Two four-fingered hands flank the mask’s face and reveal that the mask does not represent a human; rather the indentations on either side of mask’s mouth imply that it is a representation of a walrus. The skeletal markings on the figure’s ribcage, combined with the unique attributes of the mask, are further evidence that this sedna is undergoing a shamanistic transformation with the mask she holds.

Transform yourself with a visit to this exquisite artwork, currently on display at the de Young. Happy New Year!

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Further reading: Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art: Highlights from a Decade of Collecting