Faces of the Circumpolar World
Zuk, Bill, Dalton, Robert, Art Education
The human face has fascinated artists throughout the ages. Facial expressions speak about universal aspects of human experience. Some of the earliest faces created by artists from the circumpolar world were carved of mammoth tusk 12,00 years ago in Siberia. Carvings dating back 2,000 years have also been found in Greenland and Arctic Canada. Sometimes faces were scratched on the surface or carved in high relief as nearly three-dimensional figures. Their pose, adornment, style, context, and medium provide clues to the customs and beliefs of cultures very different from our own.
Among the more interesting carvings are multiple faces in antler, bone, or ivory. At first glance, one might interpret these clustered faces as a crowd of people or a family, but they were more likely associated with shamanistic rituals which invoked spirit helpers to cure illnesses. Complex masks were used in dance ceremonies to make the unseen world of magic and spirits visible. Faces carved in wood were often painted and surrounded by double-circle frameworks supporting hands, paws, and other appendages. Masks added drama to stories, songs, and dances, but more importantly brought the cultural history alive by invoking the spirits of ancestors.
Many of today's indigenous circumpolar artists understand the importance of retaining traditional beliefs, values, and customs, but they also realize that new perspectives are needed in response to new influences. Comparing traditional and innovative artworks through the use of paired reproductions is an effective method for developing an appreciation of artistic heritage in the context of social change. This resource investigates two artworks from Greenland and two from Alaska.
Over a 4,500-year period, people migrated to Greenland, Kalaallit Nunaat. For the last 2,000 years permanent habitation has existed in the coastal regions, even though much of the country is continually covered in ice.
The early inhabitants were hunters traveling in small groups or single families. They wandered from the Bering Strait to eastern Greenland following migrating game. Conditions were extremely harsh: unimaginably low temperatures and wind-chill, ice-locked waters, and snow most of the year. Survival depended on the manufacture of bone and stone tools, and success in hunting big game animals such as caribou, musk-ox, walrus, polar bear, and whales.
Despite these extreme conditions, the people had time and energy to produce small, expressively detailed carvings of humans and animals. Their preoccupation with human form and decorative elements has continued over thousands of years and remains a hallmark of contemporary artwork in Greenland.
Anonymous Eskimo Artist, late 1800s. Carved wood, sinew, beads; 14 1/2" H (37 cm). Collection: Greenland National Museum, Nuuk.
DESCRIPTION AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
This oval, wooden mask carved at the end of the 19thcentury features a woman's face with deeply carved horizontal lines thought to represent tattoo markings. A fashionable hair style of the times, the top knot, adorns the head. It is tied with a ribbon of white sealskin and hanging from it are four sinew threads with fish vertebrae and a few glass beads. Tattooing was relatively widespread among indigenous people of the circumpolar world. It was usually confined to women and most commonly found on the face. The technique of tattooing involved a pricking method. In some regions dotted markings were used while in others lines were made by a sooted thread pulled through the skin. In those tattoos, significant events were recorded for all to read-becoming a woman, marriage, or the birth of children. Vertical stripes on the chin, for example marked the first seal caught by a woman's eldest son.
Thue Christiansen 992.
Acrylic painting, 15 1/4" H x 12 3/4" W …
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Publication information: Article title: Faces of the Circumpolar World. Contributors: Zuk, Bill - Author, Dalton, Robert - Author. Magazine title: Art Education. Volume: 51. Issue: 4 Publication date: July 1998. Page number: 25+. © National Art Education Association Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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