Objects That Tell A Story: “Spirit” by Karoo Ashevak

11 Apr

One of the best things about museums is that they allow all of us to learn directly from objects. I believe every object can tell a story and want to profile some of the most interesting here, to share these stories with you. To inaugurate this series, I chose one of the most incredible objects we have (and a consistent visitor and staff favorite): “Spirit” (c.1970) by Karoo Ashevak. You may recognize it as our avatar on this blog, our Twitter, Flickr and Facebook – that’s how much we love this piece! Looking at this piece can tell us a lot about the artist, his community, the material used and many, many more things. I just want to touch on a few of them now.

Karoo Ashevak, "Spirit" c. 1970, Sprott/MIA Collection (front view)

Karoo Ashevak, "Spirit" c. 1970, Sprott/MIA Collection (back view)

Who is Karoo Ashevak? Karoo Ashevak (1940-1974), also known as Ashivak Karruq, was a prolific artist born near Talurjuak in the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut. He settled in the community in the mid-1960s and absolutely transformed sculpture in this region and achieved international recognition before dying tragically in a house fire at the age of 34.

What material is this made out of? This sculpture is made primarily out of fossilized whalebone, though details like the eyes are accentuated with inlay. The local stone in the area is very difficult to work with and most carvers there do work in whalebone (partly thanks to the influence of Ashevak). To be carved, whalebone must be fossilized. New whalebone leaks oil and will break if carved, so it must be aged at least 75 years before an artist works with it. Whalebone is abundant in the Arctic thanks to centuries of whaling, both by Inuit, their ancestors the Thule and non-Aboriginal people.

What is the sculpture of? Precisely what it is titled, spirits. Ashevak was very interested in exploring the traditional spirituality of the local Inuit, known as the Netsilingmiut or “people of the seal”. He was fascinated by transformational imagery and often carved otherwordly figures like this.

How did this come into the museum’s collection? The piece was brought into the museum via the Sprott Acquisition Program, which helps MIA acquire exquisite pieces by master artists.

This is just a brief summary of one of the most interesting and admired pieces we have in the museum (and a special look at the back of the sculpture, which is rarely visible!). We will be profiling more pieces from our collection here – do you have any favorites you’d like to learn more about?

Published by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Educational Coordinator

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