Oftentimes it is in a gloomy den, volumes of dusty books crowding immense bookshelves, standing sentry over these once cherished objects, now forgotten or misunderstood. Other times it is a cabinet in an apartment from another era,
What we can safely assume about the work is this: its creator was clearly skilled, expertly illustrating the story of two struggling hunters.
stuffed with stone and bone relics from a relative’s past. Once, it was a derelict cabin with holes in the floor that yielded a shoebox filled with small, fascinating artifacts, each wrapped meticulously in tissue for safekeeping. These are the homes of the unknown carvings, where some of the most intriguing works of art reside, their current caretaker knowing little, or nothing, of their history. It is our duty as experts to try to reveal that history, using the clues provided by the work itself.
This small stone carving, Polar Bear Hunters, represents the many brilliant sculptures that have become disconnected from their origin and their makers. What we can safely assume about the work is this: its creator was clearly skilled, expertly illustrating the story of two struggling hunters. The type of stone and hand tools that were used, as well as the patina and wear, suggest that it was likely carved fifty or sixty years ago. One of the most striking things about the carving is that the artist repurposed a piece of qulliq (seal-oil lamp), perhaps because of a shortage of available stone in their community or because the artist was out on the land with nothing else at hand.
We also know that there is Inuktitut inscribed on the bottom of the carving, offering a subtext to the scene. The inscription describes a struggle from the hunter’s point of view: shaking too much, he worries he might not hit their target. We might safely assume that the shaking he experiences is from the cold, which makes the use of the qulliq that much more intriguing.
In a sublime, creative act, the artist only implies the object of the hunt—the polar bears—as part of the base of the work, not having enough stone to illustrate the distance between the shooter and the target.
In my mind, it is one of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of Inuit art that, despite being so recently created, these magnificent pieces can be by an anonymous hand. No artist will receive their due credit for these works. And yet that does not diminish their merit as works of art. In an industry that typically places considerable importance on provenance and on the artist’s name for a work’s legitimacy and value, the unknown
Inuit artist’s work not only survives, but thrives.
Polar Bear Hunters c.1955-60 Stone 3.8 x 8.9 x 8.9 cm Courtesy Waddington’s Auctioneers & Appraisers