Critic’s Choice:

Inuit Art Quarterly - - CONTENTS - Christa Ouimet

Uniden­ti­fied Artist

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.

Uniden­ti­fied Artist Po­lar Bear Hunters c.1955-60 Stone 3.8 x 8.9 x 8.9 cm Cour­tesy Wadding­ton’s Auc­tion­eers & Ap­prais­ers

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