July 1, 2015

At the Hood Museum of Art: Inuit Spirits

Karoo Ashevak, Canadian Inuit (1940-74), Shaman and Spirit Figure, ca. 1970-74.

The Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College is a museum small in size but sweepingly large in its collections. It occasionally has in-depth shows of collections not usually on view––see my posts on their Australian Aboriginal art here and here; on Cubism here; on Japanese prints; on Native American ledger drawings; Native American art––and the curators occasionally change the art in the permanent collections galleries. When I was at the museum last week, I was stopped dead by this sculpture in cases that had previously held Chinese art. Expressive, frightening, powerful small figures called out their insistent presence in this world, while seeming to come from another.

Karoo Ashevak, Untitled (Shaman), ca. 1970-74; carved whalebone inlaid with walrus ivory, baleen, and stone. 

In the Inuit belief system, a shaman could pass between the animal, human, and spirit worlds. Ahevak's sculpture brings us face to face with the uncanny, with beings far from ordinary. Because of their strong formal qualities––the repeated curves, the low relief in contrast with the deep spaces of mouth and nostrils, the emphatic rhythm of teeth––their insistent narrative has a deeper resonance.

Karoo Ashevak, Untitled (Spirit Figure), ca. 1970-74; carved whalebone inlaid with walrus ivory, baleen, and stone. 

The frightening aspect of this spirit figure is consistent with Inuit cosmology, in which everything had a spirit, and in a hostile world there was much to fear. Looking at this piece formally, its shifting planes seem to reference cubism, but whether the artist intended that, or the forms came solely from his sensibility, I don't know. Ashevak and other Inuit artists of his generation were encouraged to carve by cooperatives that were established by the Canadian government.

Karoo Ashevak, Bird Spirit, ca. 1964-69; possibly the jawbone of a whale.

Though not as fearsome a spirit, this bird has tremendous energy captured in its flattened form.

Osuitok Ipeelee, Canadian Inuit (1923-2005), Singing Owl, 1982; green serpentine

An owl appears to be raising its arms/wings in ecstatic song. Ipeelee was a well respected artist, who loved to teach others, as he was taught by his father. A quote from his says that when
you're a carver, if you get your ideas of what you're going to make, you have to follow each step by looking at your imagination. 

Simanek Sagiatuk, Canadian Inuit, born 1930, Polar Bear, ca. 1980; serpentine.

Here is a more conventional depiction of a familiar arctic animal, but it is sensitively observed, a bulky animal in graceful movement. I was especially glad to see the work of Ashevak and Ipeelee at the museum, sculpture that was so personal and so vividly alive.


  1. These carvings still seem to contain the spirit as they were carved.