Inupiaq Art

The Inupiaq people, or Eskimo people are from the far northern coast of Alaska. They inhabited a wide range of land, about 6,000 miles, but were all still connected through common language, facial construction, and loosely through their culture base (Fitzhugh). The primary food source and activities for the Eskimo people was hunting sea creatures such as whale, sea lion, seals, and walrus. Most of the first art forms were decoration on the harpoons/darts used for hunting. There were winged things that were added onto the back end of the spear to act as a counterbalance as well as decoration (Smelter).

While the winged objects were skillfully carved, they disappeared after a short time, and were only found in cemeteries. Another form of art on the harpoon/dart was the head of the piece. Eskimo were believed to be the first to have a toggling dart head, which allowed for easy attachment of a float to the animal. Not only were these harpoon heads highly functional, there were also skillfully carved just as the winged counterbalances. All in all, the harpoon/dart was a piece of art in it’s own right.

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Eskimo women also had their own form of functional art as well. It was the Eskimos that introduced the woman’s knife, or ulu into Alaska. The ulu was multifunctional as well as decorative. Just as the harpoon/dart was art for the men, most of what the women worked with was artful. From their needle cases to their tools for making clothes, all of it was embellished in some way (Smelter). Before contact, Eskimo art was functional first, and embellished later. Everything from harpoon heads, to bucket hands, line weights, to needle cases, were covered in carvings.

It wasn’t until after contact that Eskimo art changed into something aesthetically pleasing first with some use being able to be derived from it. Instead of carved ivory every day tools, Eskimos started to make baskets, ivory figurines, and cribbage boards. Their art also changed to accommodate the huge influx of the whaling industry. Whalers wanted the nice warm clothes that the Eskimos had, as well as things made out of baleen. The very first baleen basket was made in barrow, and was commissioned by a whaler.

After that they took off in popularity and not every tourist shop in Alaska has some form of baleen weaving. Another great example of how Eskimo art changed from functional to pretty was when they started to carve walrus tusks just for aesthetic reasons. Currently most contemporary Eskimo artiest focus on prints and paintings. Bernard Tuglamena Katexca is one such example, while he does carve ivory scrimshaws, he is most known for his drawings and the prints that he makes of them. He normally depicts life as an Eskimo, such as seal life, hunting, and fishing.

There are also pictures of village life, children playing, sledding, women working etc. He is also one of the most famous Inupiaq artists. Both him and his brother Romeo, would walk around selling their artwork out of a little suitcase. There art is highly prized and sought after. Sonya Kelliher- Combs is another contemporary artist that is very well know, while for a completely different reason. Sonya does paintings, but also sculptures she calls her “secrets”. She bases her artwork off of the idea of “of bags and baggage and the things one carries along”(Decker).

Her artwork is a highly stylized idea of what Eskimo life was and is like. Her secrets are normally made out of animal intestine, blown up and dried, and then pierced with porcupine quills. Another piece she has made is called “Idiot Strings”. It it s piece with mittens made of animal hide, strung together by pieces of rawhide. This piece really speaks volumes, because every where it gets cold and people put on mittens, there are the idiot strings. It’s a great piece tying everyone and everything together.

Works Cited

Decker, Julie. Gaurded Secrets: Art of Sonya Kelliher-Combs. Print. .

Smelter, John. “Contemporary Inupiaq Art.” . Lecture
Smelter, John. “Pre-Contact Inupiaq Art.” . Lecture.

Smelter, John. “Post-Contact Inupiaq Art.” . Lecture

Fitzhugh, William. Eskimos: Hunters of the frozen coast. Web.

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