Yua at the Heard: See Yup’ik masks and Matisse in Phoenix

(Last Updated On: May 5, 2021)

January is your last chance to see Yua: Henri Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit, a stunning exhibit of historic Alaskan Yup’ik masks and Matisse drawings influenced by them, at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.

three masks

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Matisse and the Arctic spirit

With a mix of Matisse prints and drawings, archival photographs, and gorgeous historic objects from the Arctic, Yua: Henri Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit highlights the unexpected connection between 20th century European artists and the art of Native Alaskans.

In theory, the show examines the influence images and objects from the Arctic – including Yup’ik masks – had on the later work of the famous French artist. However, the masks steal the show!

While the Heard makes the connection between all the material on display reasonably clear, the exhibit itself feels like two shows:

  • A Yup’ik mask show that exams the cultural role of masks in the Arctic and the draw they held for Surrealists in the years leading to and through World War II
  • A Matisse show with prints and drawings influenced by a range of Arctic material, including Yup’ik masks

I suspect it feels like two shows because the Heard’s impressive exhibit appears to build on two earlier shows – one in Denmark examining the Matisse pieces and one in New York City looking at the influence of Yup’ik masks on Surrealist art. The Heard seems to have married these earlier exhibits and then expanded them by taking a deeper dive into both the material that influenced Matisse and the role of Yup’ik masks both in their original cultural context and as artistic inspiration.

It’s an impressive show filled with pieces that are rarely if ever on public exhibit, but it’s a lot to take in. Give yourself plenty of time.

Historic Yup’ik dance masks

While you can begin with either the Matisse pieces or the Yup’ik masks, starting with the masks provides a better context for the Matisse section. It also lets you start with what I consider the real stars of the show.

Most, if not all, of the masks on display in Yua: Henri Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit were created by the Yup’ik people of Alaska southwestern Alaska before the middle of the 20th century.

In the Yup’ik world, yua is the spirit in all things. But the Heard website explains that yua also represents “the spiritual interconnectedness of all living things . . . essential to maintaining balance and order in the Arctic way of life.” Masks were a common way of physically representing and connecting with these spirits of the seen and unseen world.

Yup’ik masks were created by a shaman or others working under the direction of a shaman for use in storytelling and shamanic dances. Masks ranged from small faces worn on the fingers to enormous pieces that were displayed rather than worn, and represented all aspects of the physical and spiritual world. Each mask included specific forms and symbols to represent a particular spirit.

view of the exhibit with large photographs and masks

Despite the amount of work that went into carving and decorating Yup’ik masks, they were designed for a single use. They weren’t viewed as sacred objects and, after the performance or ritual for which they were created, they were destroyed or simply left out to rot. That made these striking pieces both prime artifacts for northern explorers looking for exotic items to send south and relatively rare.

Once in the south, most masks went directly into museum collections or to galleries where they could be sold to individual collectors in Paris and New York. Sometimes the museums themselves sold masks from their collections to the public. (Yup’ik dance masks became particularly popular with Surrealist artists, many of whom purchased pieces that were originally part of George Heye’s collection for the Museum of the American Indian. A number of these are included in the Heard’s exhibit.)

However, as these masks became popular collectibles, much information about them was lost.

Little is known about this unusual group of Yup’ik masks from the Lower Yukon, although it’s thought they were used to perform Festival of Death ceremonies.

Among the information lost: Yup’ik masks represented the dual nature of male and female, life and death, predator and prey, good and evil. While some masks combined these dualities in a single piece, masks were often created to be used in pairs or groups with each mask in the group representing one spiritual dimension.

two wood masks with feathers

These caribou and wolf masks were created as a pair. As predator and prey, night and day, they are codependent. This is represented by the two half-faces, the wolf painted black and the caribou white, that combine to form a whole.

As part of this exhibit, the Heard united a number of these long-separated pairs that now reside in public and private collections around the United States and Europe. Although a few are represented only in photographs, most have been physically united – some for the first time in a century.

photograph and elaborate carved wood mask

It’s incredible to see so many of these pieces in one exhibit. And that experience is enhanced by the opportunity to see how the reunited pairs complement each other. Beautifully displayed and accompanied by historic photos and informative text, this exhibit has plenty to offer both the casual viewer and those with a deeper interest in the history and meaning behind Yup’ik masks.

Arctic influences on Matisse

The Matisse portion of Yua: Henri Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit is also interesting.

The exhibit consists of several dozen black and white portraits by Matisse that either explicitly depict Yup’ik people or show the influence of Arctic objects and imagery in Matisse’s drawings.

Henri Matisse’s connection to the Arctic was through his son-in-law, Georges Duthuit. A collector of Yup’ik masks (including several displayed in this exhibit), late in the 1940s Duithuit commissioned three drawings from Matisse to illustrate a book on Arctic people.

Matisse was familiar with Duthuit’s masks and they, along with illustrated books describing various Arctic expeditions, inspired his work. That Matisse had a strong reaction to the material is obvious in the fact that he went far beyond the commission, creating over 50 pieces!

Matisse worked from the representational to the abstract. He began by creating clearly identifiable portraits and then simplified them until they consisted of just a few dark lines. He came to call these minimalist portraits masks, and they do remind one of the Yup’ik masks that inspired them.

These minimalist masks make up most of the pieces on display in the Heard exhibit. However, my favorite images are the more detailed early drawings that clearly portray unique individuals.

four framed lithographs portraying native Arctic women

simple black and white drawing of a woman in a parka

The exhibition also includes some of the illustrated books about Arctic exploration that Matisse was given at the start of this project. Some of these illustrations were used as the basis for Matisse’s drawings, and it is enlightening to see them side-by-side in the exhibition.

This part of the exhibit also includes photographs and a variety of objects like those that would have been familiar to Matisse, including a number of Yup’ik masks created in the years just prior to the commission.

The space featuring the Matisse pieces opens into the Yup’ik mask display described above. That portion of the exhibit includes a number of masks from Duthuit’s collection – masks Matisse is known to have seen. It is in these masks, like the Iralum Yua moon spirit mask, that the connection to Matisse’s minimalist portraits (his own masks) becomes most obvious.

carved wood and painted mask

While it’s interesting to see how this material influenced Matisse, it was more of a surprise to realize how popular Yup’ik masks were (at least in some artistic circles) in the years leading up to and through World War II. As a fan of these masks, opportunities to see and learn about them today are scarce. Perhaps the Heard’s exhibit will help them regain a more prominent place in the public imagination.

Also on exhibit at the Heard

The Heard always has a number of exhibits on display. You can find all current exhibits listed on the Heard’s website, but here’s a sample of what’s available in January.

Jewlery by Verma Nequatewa

Closing in March, Sonwai: The Jewelry of Verma Nequatewa, features a room filled with elaborate inlaid jewelry by Hopi artist Nequatewa. She began her career as an apprentice to her uncle, master jeweler Charles Loloma, and these pieces demonstrate her own mastery of inlay and metalwork.

Like the Yup’ik masks, many of these pieces are from private collections. That makes this a unique opportunity to discover the work of this amazing contemporary jeweler.

A land north

ivory carving of a female figureCovering 100 years of Alaskan and Canadian Inuit and First Nations art and culture through objects by 11 artists is an absurd premise. But, while miniscule in size and scale, A Land North: Works from the Heard Museum Collection does include some wonderful pieces. (And it’s nice to see the Heard still owns some great Inuit pieces.) Just realize that this is far from representative of anything and just enjoy the lovely works on display.

This exhibit only runs through January, so take a few minutes to look it over on your way to Yua.


Permanent exhibit on the Native people of the southwest

If you haven’t seen the Heard’s permanent exhibit HOME: Native People in the Southwest, you’re missing a delightful deep dive into the cultures of the Native people of the southwest.

American Indian boarding school exhibit reopens

The Heard is in the process of updating their exhibit on the American Indian boarding school experience. If it is anything like the previous version of the exhibit, it will be a beautiful and heart wrenching walk through a history that is largely unknown to non-Natives.

The updated exhibit opens at the end of January.

Planning a visit to the Heard

The Heard Museum is located just north of downtown Phoenix, Arizona.

If you aren’t in Phoenix at the moment, keep in mind that January is a shoulder season, meaning you’ll find much better prices on flights and lodging than you would even a month, let along two months, later!

Once in Phoenix, getting there is a pleasant stroll down Central Avenue from the Phoenix Art Museum (or even downtown) on a cool day. On other days, it’s the next stop beyond PAM on the region’s Valley Metro rail system. Of course, this being Phoenix, there is also lots of on-site parking available at the museum.

Once at the museum, you will find landscaped grounds with sculptures and memorials, the historic museum building with its well-designed gallery spaces, two large gift shops (one for books and one for everything else) with beautiful items in all price ranges, and an excellent café.


The Heard is open every day except major holidays.

Regular admission fees go up to $18. Non-members need to pay a $7 surcharge for Yua: Henri Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit. (Don’t worry, it’s worth it.) Museum members can visit the exhibit at no extra charge.

I’m a member of the Heard, so the Yua exhibit was part of my membership

More information on Yup’ik masks and Matisse

This is the only place to see this show – it will not travel — so see it now. Much of the Matisse work has never before been shown in the USA and a number of the masks are in private collections or not otherwise on public exhibit.

The Heard published the beautiful and well-researched Yua: Henri Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit by exhibit curators Sean Mooney and Chuna McIntyre. It’s available through the Heard.

As noted, the Heard’s exhibit follows a recent show pairing some of these masks with surrealist art at Di Donna Galleries in New York and an exhibit of the Matisse pieces in Denmark a few years ago.

(Perhaps this work is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves. Hopefully that will include more prominent public exhibitions.)

Duithuit’s original Une fête en Cimmérie from 1963 is available for serious collectors of used books. (It took a few years for Duithuit to actually finish the book once Matisse produced the drawings.) Various versions, including new and used copies of a 2003 version that seems to feature just the Matisse drawings are available on Amazon. In addition, ABE Books has a variety of options ranging from about $30 for what appears to be a recent edition to something under $5,000 for an original 1963 edition.

Something for everyone at the best Phoenix art museums

Matisse drawing of a woman in a parka and text "Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit"cactus and mountain with text "Explore Phoenix Arizona and the Valley of the Sun

picture of mask with text carved wooden mask with text Matisse drawing of a woman in a parka and text "Matisse and the Inner Arctic Spirit" elaborate carved mask with text Nequatewa jewelry with text distorted wooden mask with text

2 thoughts on “Yua at the Heard: See Yup’ik masks and Matisse in Phoenix”

    1. Yes, not exactly what one would expect, but the Heard supports Native American art from across the USA and Canada. They used to have an extensive Inuit art collection from the Canadian Arctic that they showed at a separate gallery. They quit doing that, but they still have quite a lot of Arctic art and they do special shows like the Yupik show regularly.

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