Sedna, Mother of the Sea Beasts
As well as its interest as a depiction of an intriguing spiritual figure and as a work of art in and for itself, Ipeelee’s Sedna offers an opportunity to develop knowledge of Inuit art generally: its cultural background, its history, its significance as both an artistic and economic activity. It also invites consideration of ideas of the “exotic” and the “primitive” in art.
While Inuit art as we now know it only came into existence in the early 1950’s, the circumstances in which it did so and the culture it emerged from have led many people to believe that it represents a long-standing tradition of artist production. That belief has encouraged many misunderstandings of what it is and how it relates to traditional Inuit culture. We can begin to address these misunderstandings by considering how the sculpture relates to our knowledge of the traditional Inuit culture and lifestyle.
After having viewers look at the sculpture, we can begin by encouraging them to consider what they know about the Canadian Arctic and the traditional lifestyle the Inuit developed to cope with its harsh circumstances. With any luck, viewers will volunteer what they know about the extreme cold for much of the year, the lack of wood above the tree-line for building and as a source of heat, the sparse vegetation in a limited growing season, the resulting relative scarcity of animals and sea creatures and limited access to food and clothing supplies, etc. We can then help viewers to develop a picture of the Inuit’s traditional transient lifestyle: transporting all their possessions on sleds pulled by dogs on ongoing journeys across sizeable distances in order to find food supplies, no permanent residences, living much of the year in dwellings made of snow and part of it in tents made of caribou skins and bones. All this leads to one important question about the sculpture they’re looking at:
QUESTION ONE: What part would a sculpture like this one play in the traditional lifestyle we’ve been describing? And most of all: how might a large piece of stone like this be housed or transported in those circumstances?
Ideally, the discussion that follows will lead viewers to the realization that a sculpture like this one could not have existed in the circumstances we’ve been describing. So how did it come to exist? And if significantly represents traditional Inuit culture, how does it do so?
History of the Inuit and Inuit Art
In order to understand the sculpture we need to know something about the history of the Inuit, especially about their interactions with Europeans and North Americans from south of the Arctic. As well as possible meetings with Scandinavians in the European middle ages, and with European explorers in the seventeenth century, the Inuit began to have ongoing contact with American whalers in the mid-nineteenth-century. That contact very quickly changed their lifestyle, as they began to provide food for the whalers in return for European goods rather than hunting only to supply themselves. As a result, for instance, metal knives and other utensils entered the Arctic, and replaced the equivalent utensils carved from bone. Later, southern businesses like the Hudson’s Bay Co. provided a range of southern goods that began to take the place of traditional Inuit artefacts. The lifestyle changed again when silver fox became a fashionable fur outside the Artic, and many Inuit switched from hunting cariboo to trapping fox. By the beginning of the twentieth century, also, missionaries representing various Christian denominations came into the Arctic, and very quickly managed to convert the majority of the Inuit: most are still nominally either Catholics or Anglicans.
Stone carving was never a traditional activity of the Inuit. What are now known as the Dorsets, the predecessors of the people we call the Inuit in what is now the eastern Canadian Arctic, had a tradition of carving small bone figures—but that tradition ended with their defeat by the Inuit some centuries ago. In more recent times, the Inuit occasionally made small bone carvings, some perhaps for shamanic purposes, but mostly for trade with whalers; it’s revealing that these items include not just depictions of polar animals but also things like cribbage boards that less represented the lifestyle of the carvers than it suited the desires of the whalers. It’s also likely that the Inuit learned scrimshaw, the art of incising bones with line drawings that became one facet of Inuit sculpture, from the whalers.
While the Inuit did traditionally carve stone (using knives made of bone), they used it, not for sculpture, but mainly for practical objects like the quilliq, a lamp that burned seal or whale fat to produce a small amount of light.
By 1950, however, conditions in the Arctic had undergone significant changes. There were more southerners present, manning defence stations, mining, and so on. These activities had a significant effect on the caribou populations. Meanwhile, silver fox went out of fashion and became a less saleable commodity. In its wisdom, the Canadian government, wanting to make the provision of health care and other services and supervisory activities more efficient, decided to move the Inuit off their traditional hunting trails and into fixed settlements, sometimes encouraging them to move by killing their dogs and thus stopping them from hunting. But while the government provided southern-style housing, they left the Inuit with no work and nothing to do. The settlements became sites of poverty, alcoholism, and a raft of other social problems.
At this point, a young southern artist named James Houston persuaded the Canadian Handicrafts Guild to send him north to see if he could encourage the Inuit to produce artefacts that might be sold in the south and provide a source of income. While Houston and others had imagined that items like cribbage boards might be popular, it soon became apparent that of the items shipped south, purchasers preferred carvings of animals, etc.—and the larger the better, for larger carving struck southerners as being less like handicrafts than they were like art, and thus commanded higher prices. But except for larger creatures like whales, most animal bones allowed only for the carving of smaller works, so Houston and others encouraged the Inuit they worked with to try making stone sculptures. Within a few years the production of Inuit sculpture in both stone and bone became a major economic activity across the arctic, accounting at times for at least a third of the gross amount of money engendered in the North.
Because the Inuit themselves were not the consumers of the art they made, the southern market for which it was exclusively produced had significant effects on it. First, the co ops that were soon established in many northern communities in order to produce and distribute the art employed white people from the south, and the entire distribution system (the Bay, the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, and the government) was white-run. White ideas about art and about the tastes of southerners were always being taken into account. Then, since the market wanted large pieces and stone became important, it was very soon in short supply, and often had to be imported from the south, or else new quarries had to be sought and developed; so the art was often made with non-traditional materials that were sometimes from other parts of the world. Also, each piece had to be shipped south, a costly process which added to the price of the sculptures, but also, had an effect on their appearance: sculptors were advised not to make pieces with parts like wings or antlers sticking out that might be easily broken in transit. That practical consideration helps to account for what most people would recognize as the typical shape and solidity of an Inuit sculpture.
Also, and perhaps most significantly, the art market admired Inuit sculpture for its depiction of a relatively unknown and therefore exotic culture that southerners could easily identify as “primitive”—as being like the hipghly acclaimed work of artists like Picasso and Matisse that emerged in the early years of the twentieth century from the artists’ admiration of “primitive” African masks, etc.
Oviloo Tunillie, Football Player 1
Inuit sculptors who hoped for economic success then had to work with images representing the traditional hunting and fishing culture that, for the most part, they no longer lived, the creatures they had traditionally hunted, and the traditional beliefs in figures such as Sedna they no longer shared. While the majority of Inuit in the north were living in southern-style houses and using southern goods and materials from at least the fifties on, depiction of their actual environments and lifestyle had to wait for artists like Oviloo Tunillie and Annie Pootogook in the nineteen-nineties and the first decades of twenty-first century.
All of this raises another important question:
QUESTION TWO: Is Ipeelee’s Sedna evidence of a colonialist form of cultural imperialism, an imposition of a pseudo- or outdated Inuit-ness on Inuit artists? Is it significantly authentically Inuit in its relationship to the inuit past and tradition and character? Or is a piece like Ipeelee’s Sednajust a fine work of art in its own right, perhaps finer than the circumstances that produced it might suggest?
Bio/ Background Information
As a friend of James Houston, Osauitok Ipeelee (1922-2005) was one of the earliest Inuit sculptors, and a significant force in the development of Inuit art. According to Darlene Wight, curator of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, he is “Widely considered the greatest of all Inuit sculptors” (Creation, figure 60). He became known especially for his daring as a sculptor, making figures of caribou standing on spindly legs, easily breakable during sculpting and after.
Note also the delicate and fragile structure of his Sedna.
Ipeele also figures in another significant event. As Houston says,
Osuitok Ipeelee sat near me one evening studying the sailor-head trademarks on a number of identical cigarette packages. He . . . stated that it must have been very tiresome…to sit painting every one of the small heads on the small packages with the exact sameness . . . My explanation was far from successful . . . partly because I was starting to wonder whether this could have any practical application in Inuit terms. Looking around to find some way to demonstrate printing, I saw an ivory walrus tusk that Osuitok had recently engraved . . . Taking an old tin of writing ink . . . with my finger I dipped into the black residue and smoothed it over the tusk. I laid a piece of toilet paper on the inked surface and rubbed the top lightly, then quickly stripped the paper from the tusk. I saw that by mere good fortune, I had pulled a fairly good negative of Osuitok’s incised design. “We could do that,” he said, with the instant decisiveness of a hunter. And so we did.
In addition to assisting in originating Inuit printmaking in this way, Ipeelee also worked with Peter Pitseolak using a variety of Arctic materials to create a ceremonial mace for use in the Northwest Territories assembly.
He also made “a stylised Inuit stone and whalebone sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II wearing a floor-length long-sleeved green dress, holding an orb in her right hand and with a removable copper circlet on her head. The hands, neck and head of whalebone, with a copper ring on the fourth finger of the right hand; the left hand missing two fingers. The base is carved in relief with two bare feet.” This piece is still in the Royal Collection.
The figure Ipeelee’s sculpture represents, perhaps more commonly known in the Canadian arctic as Tallellayuk, is the Inuit spiritual figure who controls the creatures of the sea. Here is one version of her origin story:
Sedna was a young Inuit woman who loved to eat—a big problem for her father, who had to work hard in the unforgiving Arctic to provide her with all her food. But she kept rejecting offers of marriage. Finally, Sedna’s father decided that she had to accept the next offer, no matter who made it. When a very handsome stranger showed up and asked for her hand, Sedna was delighted. But as soon as the marriage took place, the stranger turned into a giant bird and carried her off to a large nest on top of a hill. Sedna hated living in a slimy nest with the remains of half-digested worms and mice, and as soon as her husband flew off to find fresher food, she climbed out of the nest and ran back home. Her father was not happy to see her, especially because her husband the bird could be seen quickly flying toward them and looking very angry. Sedna’s father grabbed her hand and pulled her down to the shore and into his kayak, and then paddled out to sea as quickly as he could. But the giant bird kept getting nearer and nearer, and looking angrier and angrier. Figuring that the bird was upset with Sedna and not him, Sedna’s father grabbed her and tried to throw her out of the kayak. But Sedna grasped the edge of the kayak and held on tightly. And still the bird was getting near and nearer. Finally, in desperation, Sedna’s father took out his knife and chopped off the fingers that were holding on to the boat. Sedna’s fingers fell into the sea, and as they did so, they turned into different sea creatures–fish, seals, walruses, and whales. Meanwhile, as Sedna herself dropped far under the waves, she was transformed into a powerful spirit, half human, half sea creature. And now, it is Sedna that the Inuit must beg for permission if they wish to fish or hunt any of the sea creatures, which are actually a part of her. Having learned from her own past about the problem with over-indulgence, Sedna allows only enough fishing and hunting to keep the Inuit alive.
ACTIVITY: tell the story as viewers look at the sculpture.
QUESTION THREE: Look at the sculpture to consider how it represents Sedna. How many creatures or people do you see? One? Two? More?
It’s possible to see Sedna interacting with some of her creatures—or, perhaps, Sedna in the process of becoming a sea spirit and partly a sea creature herself, as her fingers transform into the other beings.
(Also note the connection of the Sedna story to John Greer’s Origins, in the Ondaatje gallery at AGNS and on the AGNS plaza; Greer has suggested a connection between his sculpture and Sedna.
While Greer’s sculpture could represent the comb used by Inuit fishermen who go into the sea to comb Sedna’s hair to persuade them to allow them to fish in another legend about her, it might also represent her fingers as the origin of the sea creatures.)
The art of Inuit sculptors like Ipeelee is admirable as an expression of a culture dying even as the sculptures were made and of the resilience of the Inuit in developing a new form of art as a new way of surviving the decease of that lifestyle. Artists like Ipeelee were mostly untaught, and might then be considered folk artists. But the connections between the apparent simplicity of their sculptures and the work of sophisticated artists like Picasso, Matisse, and the German Expressionists both made them a sellable commodity and represents a surprising depth of complex artistry.
For a long time, furthermore, Inuit sculpture tended to be thought of by many as a sort of generic art form, with the artists unusual names left unnoted. Recently, however, important earlier artists like Ipeelee have begun to develop reputations in their own right, and later sculptors like Abraham Anghik Ruben and Ovilloo Tunillie and printmakers like Kenojuak Ashevak, Pitseolak Ashoona and Annie Pootoogook have also developed substantial reputations in their own right.
As an important work by an important artist, Ipeelee’s Sedna is an especially significant addition to the AGNS permanent collection. It’s interesting to note that it was a gift to the gallery from Alma Houston, once James Houston’s wife and partner on many visits to the north to encourage art-making and later owner of the Houston North Gallery, devoted to Inuit art and for a long time located in Lunenburg.
Canadian Eskimo Art.Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources. 1957
Crandall Richard. Inuit Art: A History. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.
Wight, Darlene, et a. Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre and Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2012.
Wight, Darlene, et al. Oviloo Tunillie: A Woman’s Story in Stone. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2016.