Kwakwaka'wakw Monumental Feast Bowl - British Columbia

Ornamental ladles and large, impressively crafted dishes such as the feast bowl presented here were prestige objects that figured prominently in the potlatch ceremonies of the Pacific Northwest. Potlatches are large community gatherings that encompass a wide scope of political, social, familial, economic, ancestral and intertribal exchanges and affirmations, and are a major structural phenomenon in Pacific Northwest cultures. Suppressed by the Canadian government from the 1880s to the 1950s, the tradition was kept alive and is still practiced today.

Lavish and ritualized acts of gift-giving were an integral aspect of potlatch festivities, as were huge communal feasts. Food was served in dishes bearing household crests and passed out according to the social hierarchy appropriate to the occasion. Important dishes were of immense size, some as large as canoes, and were heaped with portions to match. They were traditionally made either from hollowed out logs or assembled from bent boards, and were decorated with carvings.

A dish or ladle used at a feast was usually carved to represent a supernatural being, sometimes a mythical ancestor, that had bestowed its protection upon an ancestor of the host. The present dish features two large figures at either end, tucked in a seated or crouching posture and holding the vessel with large, outstretched arms. They peer over the edge, chins resting on the rim, gazing upward with wide eyes and expressions of exertion. Sections of the dish have been treated with fine detail work that beautifies the surface with soft parallel ridges. Long age and use have lent this handsome dish a heavy, dark patina and smoothed down its surfaces to a marked degree, clearly apparent in the ghostly features of the square-faced figures.

This monumental bowl is an irreplaceable masterwork. Not only is it an exceptionally early example, its impressive scale, masterly craftsmanship and hauntingly beautiful guardian figures carved in the round make it one of the most important examples to come to the market in the last twenty-five years.

Circa 1780 or earlier
Hardwood, probably alder
43 ¼” l
- Faith-Dorian & Martin Wright Collection, New York
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