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Ask MOA: What Is This Carving?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case is about a contemporary carving by an Inuit artist purchased in Vancouver.

Question from inquirer:

My father bought this in the 1980s, from, I think, the Inuit Art Gallery in Gastown. I seem to recall him saying it was whalebone from Cape Dorset. I have always wondered what it depicts? Any artist information has been lost as my Dad sadly got Alzheimer’s, and so got rid of a lot of things he would normally have kept. Thanks for anything you can tell me about this beautiful piece.

Answer from Susan Rowley:

This lovely Inuit figure is carved from one of the denser bones of a bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus)—either part of the skull or jaw or one of the flipper bones. The bowhead whale is a baleen whale found in Arctic waters. It is the longest-living mammal on earth reaching ages of over 200 years. Inuit have hunted the bowhead whale for hundreds of years making use of all parts of the whale. The skin, fat (sometimes half a metre thick!) and the meat were eaten. The bones were used to construct winter homes—the jaws and ribs were used to form the structure that was then covered with skins and sod, making a warm windproof home in the long, dark arctic winters. There is a great online exhibit, Thule Whalebone House, about these houses on the Glenbow Museum’s website. The bones were also used to make tools, including runners for dog sleds.

British and American whalers started hunting bowhead whales in Nunavik and Nunavut in the 1800s. By the early 1900s, this hunt had brought this species to the brink of extinction. Today, with the cessation of the commercial hunt, the bowhead population is recovering. Inuit continue to hunt bowheads sustainably. In Nunavut and Nunavik only a few are hunted each year. This enables Inuit to maintain their long-standing connection to this species, for subsistence, and to sustain cultural practices.

MOA Collection A2.269.

You asked what the carving depicts. It is of a woman wearing an amautiq carrying a child. The amautiq is a remarkable piece of clothing. It is cut in such a way as to create a pouch at the back—this is where the child resides, nestled against the warmth of her/his mother. In addition, the child has the fur of the pouch, and two layers of the amautiq hood covering him/her. The child is held in place by a cord that goes underneath the pouch and is held in place at the front of the amautiq. This photo (right) of a stone carving by an unrecorded artist from Nunavik shows a child sleeping in the amautiq, where you can clearly see the pouch and the hood.

Whalebone carvings are not made from fresh bones. Whalebones are full of oil and it needs time to leach out before the bone can be worked. Most contemporary Inuit whalebone carvings are from bones found on beaches or in and around ancient villages and winter houses.

You wanted to know more about the community and the artist. Unfortunately, I can’t be of much help here. The style of the amautiq hood, with a pointed peak, certainly fits an attribution to Cape Dorset, but it could also fit a number of other communities. In terms of the artist, you noted that your father got rid of most of his paperwork. He also covered the base of the carving, which is where the artist may have inscribed his/her name.