Tsonoqua in Love
EXHIBITION:Masters of Disguise III: A Group Mask Exhibition
Artist Statement: Tsonoqua in Love
People of the Northwest Coast long heard the stories of a half-mad cannibal woman named Tsonoqua who tramps through the woods crying “hoo hoo” with pooched lips while she hunts for naughty children to eat. She is the bogey woman of the old Northwest Coast…still ardently believed in by traditionalists and a timeless threat held before misbehaving children.
Tsonoqua comes in many forms depending on the dramatic form of the story-teller or the imagination of an artist. Her sinister and somewhat tragic story can be complex, psychological, even. She is also regarded as a high status crest image signified by spectacular masks, especially among the Kwak’waka’wakwa of mid-Vancouver Island. In a version I heard in Alert Bay in 2011 from a well-known carver and chief, Tsonoqua was smitten with envy by the beauty of a local young woman. She sought the friendship of this young woman while at the same time seething with envy and despair that she herself could never be so beautiful.
This is one way to envision her, portraying only part of her story. There are many more, the oldest works seem to favor the dark look of an empowered death mask, alive and horrific. Other masks, including a thunderous one from an old Kwakiutl village deep in the fjord country of the B.C. coast, show a massive creature with deeply sculpted features. To my knowledge it was the Kwakiutl carver Willie Seaweed who, during the 1950’s and “60’s created many Tsonoqua masks with brightly colored and carved pin-striping limning the sensuous lines of his deeply sculpted faces. His style is my nearest model in creating Tsonoqua in Love.