New on View: Frontlet

By | February 9, 2018

An artist from coastal British Columbia created this frontlet in the middle of the 19th century. Worn on a dancer’s forehead, this carving would have featured additional components. With sea lion whiskers sticking up from the crown, a veil-like attachment of swan skin or canvas covered the dancer’s head, shoulders, and back. Moving underneath this attachment, a mechanical apparatus distributed eagle down around the dancer.

Attributed to the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) nation, the carving represents a raven. With outstretched wings attached to the central panel, the raven clutches in its mouth a ball representing light. This frontlet illustrates the key moment in a story widespread among Northwest Coast groups, when the trickster bird steals the sun, moon, and stars from a box to illuminate the world.

Side view

Like much historic Native American art, this frontlet reflects its cosmopolitan site of production. In addition to using organic materials of wood and shell, the Nuxalk artist pigmented the face and wings with industrial laundry bluing and fashioned the eyes from mirrored glass and metal rings. When a dancer wore the frontlet, abalone-shell inlays and mirrored eyes reflected firelight around the interior walls of a Nuxalk house. This effect likely imbued the frontlet with a sense of animism, thus emphasizing the associated narrative: raven brought light.

Frontlet is now on view in Gallery 326.

Frontlet, c.1870; Nuxalk (Bella Coola); wood, pigment, copper, abalone shell, and mirrored glass; 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 x 8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Morton D. May  272:1982

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