Posted: 17th November 2020
This small (7.5 cm by 3.5 cm) polar bear ornament is carved from walrus ivory. It is shown walking on all fours with its neck outstretched. Deliberately or by accident the grain and the wear to the ivory gives a texture suggesting the fur of the polar bear. The carving has a stark almost expressionist form and the small size and smoothness seems to invite handling and touching.
This ornament was carved by a member of the Inuit, the group of culturally similar indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska. To the nomadic Inuit the polar bear was an important source of food and fur but in addition to this economic contribution bears inspired the Inuit’s imagination. Noted for their intelligence, strength and agility polar bears feature prominently in Inuit mythology, spirituality, storytelling, art and song. Many Inuit stories reinforce the critical importance of the polar bears’ ice knowledge, providing guidance in difficult situations.
As nomadic hunters the Inuit made full use of stone, leather, bone and ivory to make their tools, clothing and weapons. But they took time to decorate their tools or produce other objects with less immediate utilitarian purposes. As part of their spiritual beliefs the Inuit made small carved items for use in their shamanic rituals as amulets or charms: other small carvings were intended as teaching tools, toys, gifts or gaming tokens. The small size of Inuit carvings allowed them to be easily packed or carried, important considerations for the Inuit with their nomadic lifestyle.
This particular small bear however was probably made as a ‘trade sculpture’, a souvenir to be sold or traded with the European and American whalers who were increasingly active in the Arctic during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Popular subjects included cribbage boards and dice games, models and toys of local animals or of the Inuit themselves, going about their everyday life. Producing such trade items became an increasingly important part of the Inuit economy. With Hull operating as a major whaling port during the nineteenth century it is not hard to imagine how this little bear might make his way here from the Arctic, perhaps in the pocket of a local sailor and intended as a gift for a loved one.
This polar bear stands as a reminder of Hull’s whaling history and illustrates the city’s longstanding maritime connections with the world. But to me it also speaks of a deeper human desire, to transform a simple object and produce something that isn’t simply a utilitarian tool. Humans have been making objects like this polar bear for thousands of years, all the way back to the Paleolithic almost 40,000 years ago or even earlier. Some are remarkable realistic, others sketched, abstracted, caricatured or surreal. But these choices of composition and perspective make us recognise not just the skill and creativity of the maker, but the artistry.