Museums are usually a place for appreciating art that will be around for centuries. But earlier this month, the Anchorage Museum hosted a ceremony to burn ten beautiful Alaska Native masks. The artists who created the masks wanted to inspire community conversations about illness and healing.
Following Drew Michael around is like trying to keep up with a hummingbird.
Michael is the Yup’ik artist who carved the 10 giant masks that represent diseases like cancer, HIV and fetal alcohol syndrome. They’re on display for the last time at Out North in Anchorage where Michael alternates between being gracious host, smiling and hugging people who come to sign and photograph the masks and urgently sewing the harnesses that will be needed to allow dancers to carry the heavy masks before they burn. He was putting the harnesses together in pieces. As he worked, I asked how many were left to do.
“I have no idea because I’m doing steps at a time, so none of them are done yet.” He laughs and continues. “Am I gonna be really tired tomorrow? Yeah, but it’s OK, it’s part of the process.”
He paused for a few quiet minutes to reflect on what he hopes to accomplish the next day when he burns his creations.
“In the end, I don’t really care about the pieces going away because it’s really about time for people to connect to their own emotions and then release those,” Michael said.
And 20 hours later… it’s Saturday evening at a new venue- the Anchorage Museum.
Alutiiq artist Elizabeth Ellis is standing next to the masks that she painted after Drew Michael carved them. She says they worked well together and she’s proud of the masks. Her daughter is celebrating her half birthday- full of six month old charm and wiggly smiles. As a mom of two young children, Ellis says painting the fetal alcohol syndrome mask was especially emotional for her.
“It was hard to do, it was hard to translate onto a mask and how one would actually see that,” Ellis said. “Especially as a mother and I was pregnant and I have known multiple people that have gone through this situation.”
Pamyua, the Native musicians known for their tribal funk sound, keep the energy positive as volunteers don the recently sewn harnesses to dance the masks outside. Then Drew announced it’s time to go outside
“Ok, so the plan of events before everyone runs out,” Michael started. “One person told me that masks are worn by one person but this project is carried by the whole community. So what we want to do is kind of treat it like a funeral procession and we’d like people to go over to the masks and we can carry them, so if you’re interested in carrying these pieces and holding them, we’re going to take them out onto the lawn, put them on the ground and then we have specific people who are going to wear these.
One by one, people lift the masks and carry them outside. Like a somber parade, we move onto the lawn of the museum and watch as the masks come to life through dance. As Pamyua provides a purification song.
Two huge fire pits are behind us to the west. Drew Michael and Elizabeth Ellis work together in this final artistic expression as they take the first mask and heave into the flames.
“Ready?” Michael asked.
“I’m ready.” Ellis replied.
“Ok. That was arthritis!” Michael calls out as the crowd cheers and applauds.
The heat is nearly unbearable and it’s difficult to tell if the tears on faces of those watching are from release of pain or smoke or both. One man, crying and staring intently at the cancer mask as it is consumed by the flames politely declines to comment. But Cameron Willingham, firelight reflected on his smiling face is delighted by being able to experience this art.
“I’ll steal a quote from a friend of mine,” Willingham said. “We were talking about museum archives and library archives being like purgatory for art. It just goes there and it’s in this gray, empty space, where it will never be touched again. You know. Send it off, give it a new life.”
Barbara Mayer lives in Anchorage and works in the medical field. She appreciates how the masks highlight illness and the hope for healing for Alaskans.
“We all have suffered from disease and what the masks represent and people young and old,” Mayer said. “It’s an awesome experience and I’m honored to be here to get to witness the burning and saying goodbye to these spirits that we don’t need. Putting an end to what brings us ill health.”
After all the masks are in the fire, Ellis and Michael stand close together, buoyant.
Elizabeth Ellis lists off her feelings. “Happy, relieved, light.”
Drew Michael nods and smiles. “I’m really happy. People have come up and said this opened up something inside of them that’s been locked in there for a long time. And I’m glad that I could work with you Liz and that we could do this together.”
As the heat subsides, the charred masks flicker with their dying energy.
In the twilight, people slowly start to move off as smoke and sorrow float away.