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This Bella Coola Sun Mask by Beau Dick, dating to 1986, lit up the auction block in December 2023 when it achieved CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

There’s no masking the appeal of Beau Dick’s art

NEW YORK — The late Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artist Beau Dick (1955-2017) combined tradition with innovation to create some of the most appealing carved and painted ceremonial objects and masks.

Among First Nations Northwest Coast artists, Dick was revered and noted for his versatile artistic techniques as well as his activism and his work as a community leader. He spent most of his life in Alert Bay in British Columbia, Canada and learned carving as a young child.

Understanding his art requires recognizing how deeply his heritage affected him. “He was a titan, and his legacy extends beyond his remarkable talent in carving to his profound activism and advocacy. He leveraged his artistic stardom to advocate for Indigenous rights and environmental protection,” said Nadine Di Monte, executive director and specialist at First Arts Premiers Inc., based in Toronto, Canada. “He was deeply involved in all facets of his Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw culture and dedicated himself to the study, revival, and preservation of its rich traditions, including dancing and storytelling, in addition to carving.”

Dick’s artwork drew inspiration from his culture’s potlatch tradition — a ceremonial gift-giving event that emphasized wealth redistribution to strengthen community bonds. “The Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw potlatches have consistently been lauded for their theatricality. Historically, masks were essential in ceremonial dances, designed to come alive in the firelight through the dance, capturing the essence of spirits or other living beings,” Di Monte said.

Beau Dick’s visually stunning circa-1998 Hamat’sa Bear Headdress earned CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.
Beau Dick’s visually stunning circa-1998 Hamat’sa Bear Headdress earned CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

“What distinguishes Dick’s masks is their profound ability to capture the drama and animation of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw potlatches, even as inanimate objects,” she said. “With their enhanced realism and emotive power, Dick’s masks not only amplify the originally intended effect of a mask – to embody and animate the being it represents – but also to transform and innovate the artistic tradition from which they stem.”

His masks are prized, typically selling well above their estimates, and have seen a surge of interest in the secondary market in recent years. “As collectors and institutions increasingly prioritize ethically sourced Northwest Coast art, the value and demand for works by artists like Beau Dick have notably increased,” said Di Monte. “His depictions of more ‘monstrous’ figures, such as Ba̱k’wa̱s (Bookwus, or the Wild Man of the Woods) and Dzunuḵ’wa (the Wild Woman of the Woods), are particularly popular.”

A new world auction record for Beau Dick was set in June 2024 with the sale of this Ba̱k’wa̱s (Bookwus) Mask with Articulated Skeletal Figure, dating to 2008. It attained CA$60,000 ($43,600) plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.
A new world auction record for Beau Dick was set in June 2024 with the sale of this Ba̱k’wa̱s (Bookwus) Mask with Articulated Skeletal Figure, dating to 2008. It attained CA$60,000 ($43,600) plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

The June 2024 auction at First Arts Premiers Inc established a new world auction record for the artist with the sale of a 2008 mask, Ba̱k’wa̱s (Bookwus) Mask with Articulated Skeletal Figure. It secured CA$60,000 ($43,600) plus the buyer’s premium.

“This record-setting sale underscores the profound artistic significance of the work. Dick’s masterful design, which includes a macabre skeletal figure that recalls the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw tradition of puppetry, elevates the mask,” she said.

“The untamed hair and extended eyebrow hairs, alongside the deep, almost blood-like red hues accented with black, amplify its dramatic presence, making it a quintessential embodiment of the spirit it represents,” Di Monte continued. “This convergence of tradition, innovation, and visual impact solidifies its status as a highly coveted work.”

A Kwakwaka'wakw Pookmis cedar and fur mask by Beau Dick, depicting a sea spirit, soared above its $2,000-$3,000 estimate to bring $19,350 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2023. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.
A Kwakwaka'wakw Pookmis cedar and fur mask by Beau Dick, depicting a sea spirit, soared above its $2,000-$3,000 estimate to bring $19,350 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2023. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Even Dick’s seemingly ‘tame’ masks are finding favor with buyers as these works clearly demonstrate his talent and the regard he had for his community’s traditions. A circa-2000 Kwakwaka’wakw Pookmis Mask in cedar and fur soundly beat its $2,000-$3,000 estimate to bring $19,350 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2023 at Artemis Gallery.

The mask portrays the sea spirit Pookmis, aka Pookoobs, representing a drowned whaler or the Wild Man of the Sea, who has dog fur for hair. “The stylized visage features a furrowed brow, a curved, beak-like nose, layered gills along the cheeks, and dramatic, pouting lips that extend forward,” according to Artemis Gallery, which explained in its catalog description that Pookmis is associated with healing or resurrection, and known to the Haida as Gagiid, and to the Tlingit as Land Otter.

Dick also was moved by influences beyond his regional heritage, ranging from Western artists such as Caravaggio to fellow indigenous artists. An early example of his work, a 1986 Bella Coola Sun Mask, lit up the auction block in December 2023 when it realized CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium at First Arts Premiers Inc.

Another view of Beau Dick’s 1986 Bella Coola Sun Mask, which achieved CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.
Another view of Beau Dick’s 1986 Bella Coola Sun Mask, which achieved CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

This mask is a fine example of him stepping outside of Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw artistic traditions to interact with the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) art style. “Dick pays homage to the Snuxus, the Nuxalk Nation’s shared crest, which represents Alhkw’ntam (the Creator) in the center, from which the Four Carpenters radiate with their hands held up,” Di Monte said.

Notable on several fronts is a headdress with cedar bark and vivid acrylic paint decoration, made circa 1998. Titled Hamat’sa Bear Headdress, it took CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023 at First Arts Premiers Inc.

Beau Dick’s circa-1998 Hamat’sa Bear Headdress, here shown from a head-on perspective, earned CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.
Beau Dick’s circa-1998 Hamat’sa Bear Headdress, here shown from a head-on perspective, earned CA$15,000 ($10,900) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2023. Image courtesy of First Arts Premiers Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

“Traditionally, the Hamat’sa Bear is positioned at the entrances of ceremonial halls, and sometimes elevated on roofs or platforms, and it serves a critical role in greeting guests, many from distant villages, who may be unfamiliar with the host village’s protocols,” Di Monte said. “It symbolizes the sacredness of the ceremonies within, demanding full attention and respect from all attendees. Moreover, its significance is further amplified by Beau Dick’s personal connection to the Hamat’sa Society, as he was an initiated Hamat’sa dancer himself.”

Viewed outside their ceremonial context, many of the artist’s pieces hold up as contemporary art objects. A polychrome painted Tanis Mask in cedar, dating to 1991, which realized $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at MBA Seattle Auction, is among the best of those that represent a merger between tradition and artistry.

“One aspect of his modern reinterpretation involves the way he engages with the dual roles of his artworks. It’s important to note that Beau Dick carved both for ceremonial and commercial purposes, with masks and other works often serving dual functions,” Di Monte said.

Beau Dick’s 1991 polychrome painted cedar Tanis Mask made $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of MBA Seattle Auction and LiveAuctioneers.
Beau Dick’s 1991 polychrome painted cedar Tanis Mask made $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020. Image courtesy of MBA Seattle Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

“This interchanging of roles should not be viewed as a perversion or conflict, but as a seamless integration of his art’s cultural and economic dimensions,” she added. “Beau Dick’s craftings of works that could and did fulfill both ceremonial and commercial functions was a radical reclamation of cultural heritage as well as a pathway to economic empowerment.”

Contemporary collectors strive to obtain a deeper understanding of these works and actively look for ethically sourced indigenous art and objects. As this movement grows, the appeal of Beau Dick’s art grows along with it.