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Research and Collections

Historic Ivories at the Canadian Museum of Civilization – Page 2

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Standing man with paddle, 1903-04

collected by A.P. Low at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay (ivory and black colouring; 5.4 x 2.8 x 1.9 in.; Canadian Museum of Civilization IV-B-784 A-B).

This figure is perfectly balanced and stands without any support. Ivory allows the carver to incise incredibly fine facial features. Black ink emphasizes the eyes and mouth.

Having established a firm date – the date of the cruise – does not necessarily tell us much about their provenance. Although the cruise has been well documented, there is tantalizingly little mention of any ivory carvings. It is frustrating for the contemporary researcher that both men, Low as a geologist and Borden as a medical doctor, paid very little attention to what they considered mere curios.

In the account of the expedition, entitled “The Cruise of the Neptune”, A.P. Low mentions ivory carvings in one paragraph. “The carving of walrus ivory passes many an hour of the long winter.

Standing man with ice-scoop, 1903-04

collected by A.P. Low at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay (ivory and black colouring; 2 x 1.8 x 0.5 in.; Canadian Museum of Civilization IV-B-774).

The ice-scoop was used to remove snow covering a seal’s breathing hole.

As a rule the carvings are crude representations of various animals and other animate objects, and have no high value as objects of art, but occasionally there arises a real artist, who when encouraged will produce wonderfully artistic models of the various animals, men, dogsleds and almost anything suggested to him” (p.176). As we know that the Neptune wintered in Cape Fullerton – and ivory carvings were mostly done during the long hours of winter – it seems safe to assume that these were done by Inuit from the area around Cape Fullerton.

There is corroboration for this assumption from another source. During the winter of 1903-04 the Neptune was stationed very close to the Era, an American whaling ship commanded by Captain George Comer. In his diaries Comer makes several references to Commander Low and his ship’s doctor. The entry for Thursday, April 21, 1904 reads as follows: “Commander Low and the doctor were over. I gave them some ivory carvings to take home to friends” (Ross, 1984, p.111). On January 20, 1904 he mentions “my chief native Harry (Teseuke) has been making some ivory carvings for Commander Low, which he took over this evening” (Ross, 1984, p.90).

Harry, Chief of the Aivilingmiut, 1903-04

photo by A.P. Low (National Archives of Canada PA-050919).
According to Captain Comer, his mate Harry Teseuke made a series of ivory carvings for Commander Low. In addition, one of the ivory bears in Borden’s collection is signed “Harry”. Ethel Borden tells the following anecdote about Harry and Dr. Borden: “A woman had a sore leg, another had hemiplegia, yet another was totally blind for years with cataracts in both eyes. The doctor drew a diagram and within two weeks, Harry, an Eskimo genius, carved and polished two ivory spuds which were made successfully under the most primitive conditions”
(Borden 1961, 35).

Harry, Chief of the Aivilingmiut

The latter passage relates directly to an entry by Borden who, in his diary of the cruise, mentions once briefly: “Harry, native, made me a few figures from ivory.” (entry from January 12, 1904). Harry was the chief of the Aivilingmiut and Comer’s “head native.” One of the carvings in Borden’s collection is actually signed “Harry”.

Man with rifle, crawling on his belly, 1903-04

collected by L.E. Borden at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay (ivory and black colouring; 0.7 x 0.6 x 3 in., rifle 2 in. long; Canadian Museum of Civilization IV-X-559).

This figure, collected by Borden, may not be by the same hand as the hunters from the Low collection, but it is very similar in style. The stylized, small-hooded parka, the fine lines used to indicate hair and the attempt to capture movement reflect the same distinct local style.

Whether Harry incised the signature himself we will never know. In another place Borden comments about Captain Comer: “Although peculiar in many respects, he is a very good hearted man and altogether I have fared pretty well at his hands, having received before some carved ivory and a few things in the way of curios” (entry from May 17,1904). In addition there is mention in a memo from his wife, Ethel Borden, of “carvings and artifacts received as appreciation of care of Eskimo.” So this meagre information, in total, reveals that the artifacts in Borden’s collection were partially made by “Harry,” as well as by grateful patients. From A.P. Low’s comments one can deduce that he made suggestions regarding themes to Inuit whom he considered endowed with artistic talent. The themes for the group of seven figures, engaged in various activities related to the hunt, may have been suggested by him; these figures are most likely by Harry, Comer’s main assistant.

Muskox, 1903-04

collected by A.P. Low at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay (ivory, bone and muskox horn; 1.9 x 0.6 x 2.8 in.; Canadian Museum of Civilization IV-B-804).

The positioning of the legs, the lowered neck to indicate grazing, and the slight turn of the head imbue this little sculpture with life.

In style these miniatures differ from those from Labrador. They have none of the elaborate red and black markings on parka decorations that are such a distinctive feature of Labrador ivories from the late 19th century. They are generally larger and there is a noticeable attempt to capture movement and gestures. They are similar to Labrador ivories, however, in the use of some black colouring to indicate hair and facial features. This technique carried over into early miniatures from the contemporary period, especially in the work of artists like Sheokjuk Oqutaq and Peesee Oshuitoq from Cape Dorset.

Franz Boas, in one comment, refers specifically to this area around Southampton Island and the west coast of Hudson Bay: “the Aivilik and Kinipetu of Southampton Island make a great many carvings in ivory and soapstone” (1901, p.113).

Hunter with spear, 1903-04

Collected by L.E. Borden at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay (ivory and black colouring; 3.2 x 1.4 x 0.6 in. Canadian Museum of Civilization IV-X- 575) PCD 95-400-067

I agree with Martijn’s assumption that employment with whalers such as Captain Comer or explorers such as A.P. Low and Dr. Borden probably led to an increase in carving in response to the demand of the ships’ crews to purchase “keepsakes”, as Martijn calls them, to take home after a successful hunt (1964, p.556).

Thus it becomes clear that Inuit, certainly from this region of the eastern Arctic, were accustomed to producing souvenirs for an outside culture long before 1948. When Houston travelled across the Arctic encouraging people to carve, he continued a tradition that had started with the first contact between the Inuit and intruders into their world.

Bear, 1903-04

collected by L.E. Borden at Cape Fullerton, Hudson Bay (ivory and black colouring 3 x 1.5 x 7 cm; Canadian Museum of Civilization IV-X-551). PCD 94-594-049

As the only piece that is actually signed with the name, “Harry”, this bear is crucial in identifying what other ivories stem from Harry’s gifted hands. The sensitivity and elegance of this little piece make it very likely that the “Caribou with Antlers” (IV-B-799) and the series of hunting figures from A.P. Low’s collection were also done by Harry, the genius.

Among the long list of explorers, whalers, missionaries, traders, scientists, anthropologists, RCMP officers, and government officials were A.P. Low and Dr. Borden, who received the group of carvings shown here both as gifts and as private commissions.

The next step in research would be to study the 30 ivory carvings which Captain Comer collected between 1902 and 1910 for the American Museum of Natural History, upon the request of Franz Boas, ethnologist at that institution.


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