[Image: Cup’ig artist, Mask (c. 1915), wood, cormorant feathers, sinew and paint, The Thomas G. Fowler Collection at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Photograph copyright 2020 the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]
The Thomas G. Fowler Collection at the Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco consists of a wide range of art and artefacts from the peoples of the Arctic. The quality of the objects and variety of types makes the group especially valuable for anyone wishes to get an overview of Arctic cultures. Thomas G. Fowler (1943-2006) was an esteemed graphic designer and keen traveller of the Arctic north. He started collecting in the 1970s and built a collection of nearly 400 items. Upon his death, he bequeathed his collection to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it joined the long-established Native American collection.
Yua: Spirit of the Arctic documents highlights of the collection and provides a comprehensive overview of the material culture of the people of the north. (Yua means spirit of a being in Yup’ik.) The excellent-quality large illustrations with technical data and brief notes bring objects to life. Experts provide essays covering different aspects of the many cultures in the huge area of northern North America and Greenland. The peoples represented in the collection include the Inuit, Aleut, Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, Unangax̂, Inuktitut and Kalaallit (the definitions of which sometimes overlap) and the historical groups Okvik, Punuk, Birnik and Thule. An extensive essay details the history of Western collecting of artefacts made by northern peoples.
The majority of the material dates from the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries but some are much older. Pieces dating from the Okvik and Purnuk eras (100-400 AD) are small tusk carvings of figurines. Some seem to represent children in swaddling clothes. In one figurine (no. 18) the minimally decorated striations on the face and oval eyes have the countenance of West African mask carvings. The dark coloration of some pieces is due to artists using partially fossilised walrus ivory rather than fresh material. Some figures may have been dolls or for girls to dress, thereby practising skills they would use for making clothing. There is a figurine from the Thule culture, which vanished and superseded by the Inuit from 1400 onwards. The Thule did not prize art and what they left has little decoration and is unambitious – in contrast to the forceful art that previous and later eras produced.
Most of the materials used are traditional and locally sourced, including walrus skin/ivory, whale bone, driftwood, stone, reindeer hide/sinew, teeth, grass and birch bark. Metal was used sparingly – particularly in areas without trees, which provided the fuel for smelting. Sources included meteorites and other readily accessible sources. (The Copper Inuit is a small tribe who got its name from the ore deposits on Coppermine River, Nunavut. The Cape York (Innaanganeq) meteorite was an important source of iron for the local Inuit tribe before it was taken by Captain Robert Peary took it to the USA in 1897.) Colour is minimal – limited to soot/charcoal, red ochre, white clay and blue clay – often impermanent.
The decorated knife and hook handles show how the Inuit altered manufactured items from the south and embellished them with meaningful symbolism. Designs include animal forms and designs indicating geographical regions or cosmological zones. Some harpoon heads are decorated – relating to common beliefs about the interrelated nature of men and animals and their spirits. “Such decorations not only beautified utilitarian objects but also imbued them with spiritual meaning and honoured the life-giving power of animals and the ancestors.” The value of punctilious and diligent appeasement and mindfulness is stressed in a number of folk tales which instil the most effective ways of hunting and living. There is a belief that the spirit of a prey animal will be appeased if it is caught by a hunter who takes pride in his craft. The devotion of attention to a weapon head that had high likelihood of being lost in the hunt shows how seriously those ideas were taken.
Snow goggles carved from driftwood show us the ingenuity of technology of the Inuit. The ergonomically efficient goggles have narrow horizontal slits which reduce the glare of sunlight reflected from snow – which is so strong it can blind people – and (in this case) has a visor to shield from direct sunlight. Western travellers used tinted (or smoked) glass but the locals (who did not have access to glass, except through trade in later periods) got there earlier. This pair of goggles is dated c. 1850.
Simply from studying the form and function of these artefacts – ranging from art to tools – we can an insight into the priorities. Many objects functioned on multiple levels: utilitarian, symbolic, artistic, instructional, status demonstration, ritual, spiritual, entertainment and others. It is often hard to determine exactly what the relevance of each aspect of an object is and how it was seen by its makers and users. (See also my review of a book about Incan objects, Sculpture Journal.)
Objects indicating regular trade with the south include pipes, tobacco boxes and gunpowder horns. Clothing includes full outfits for a man and women, Greenland style, c. 1910 and 1949.
A number of later items seem to have been made specifically for the tourist trade. (One example is a (presumably) non-functional pipe carved from ivory.)
[Image: Inupiaq artist, Pipe (c. 1890), walrus tusk and pigment, The Thomas G. Fowler Collection at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Photograph: Randy Dodson, copyright 2020 the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]
Fowler was not deceived but was a collector who wanted attractive pieces, be they functional or handicrafts. Fowler recognised that whatever the intended use for the objects, they displayed genuine invention and care in their creation.
Combs, ornaments, masks and game pieces show the Inuit at leisure, giving us a glimpse of people at play and relaxing. It is a testament to the hardiness and resourcefulness of the northern peoples that they had time to create and use such items in the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. We get an understanding of the mobile, nomadic lifestyle of the creators from the features that indicate travel: clasps on baskets, carrying cases for needles and holes drilling for threading objects so that they would not be lost during travel.
From recent decades one finds fine-art sculpture which develops traditional materials and forms in ways that enter the purely aesthetic territory. There constructions are highly complex and delicate, made the museum or private art collection. The named artists are David Ruben Piqtoukun (b. 1950), Abraham Anghik Ruben (b. 1951) and Susie Silook (b. 1960), each of whom contribute statements. Others are Judas Ullulaq (1937-1999), Kay Hendrickson (1909-2002), Levi Tetpon (b. 1952) and Naulaq.
Yua: Spirit of the Arctic is an informative and enjoyable book which provides a chance to encounter civilisations of surpassing inventiveness and enduring aesthetic traditions.
Hillary C. Olcott, et al, Yua: Spirit of the Arctic. Highlights from the Thomas G. Fowler Collection, de Young/Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Delmonico/Prestel (distr. Prestel), 2020, hardback, $40/£29.99, ISBN 978 3 7913 5945 8
© 2020 Alexander Adams
To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art