Spotlight On: Caribou Antler

16 Jun

Walking though the Museum of Inuit Art, I notice that caribou antler can be found everywhere throughout the collection. But why d0n’t I know much about it? It’s a material that seems to keep a low profile. Caribou antler is a common material used in Inuit art that often escapes notice because of its artistic limitations – it’s not glossy, it’s not very strong, and it’s oddly shaped.  However, it is used in many different ways! A few artists carve and construct works solely from the material, but many use the antler for minute detailing, larger features, or use it in its natural form.

Caribou in the wild (c) Travis S., used under Creative Commons license.

The use of caribou antler in Inuit art varies due to regional styles and types of artistic materials available. Antler is widely available to Inuit artists, as caribou can be found north of the tree-line across the Canadian Arctic, and especially in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. Both female and male caribou shed their antlers annually, so caribou are not hunted for their antler specifically.

Antler was traditionally used for utilitarian objects, such as buckles, snow goggles, and toys. Antler can be sawed or filed into shape, and can also be pegged or glued together to create more complex forms. In Arctic regions where the available stone is particularly hard and difficult to carve, antler can be used for detailing and emphasis.

Peter Assivaaryuk (1914-d), Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake), “Caribou Shaman” (1970s), caribou antler, Private Collection.

Caribou are particularly important for Inuit in the Kivalliq, who were traditionally nomadic hunters. The Kivalliq is also home to the Arctic’s only inland community, Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), so land mammals like caribou were much more important to survival in the surrounding area than sea mammals. Shamanim and hunting are common themes in art from this region, and often antler-based sculptures depict a tableau or scene, such as this intricate piece from Arviat displayed in the MIA collection:

Romeo Eekerkik (1923-1983), Arviat, “Journey to a Summer Camp” (1970s), Antler, Sprott/MIA Collection.

Because of the physical restrictions of antler as a material with a narrow circumference, artists often use pegs or glue to expand the form of their sculptures and create depth. Pegs can also function as joints, which provides the sculpture the possibility of movement, and mirrors a more traditional doll-like function.

Detail of pegs in Luke Iksiktaaryuk (1909-1977), Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake), “Standing Man” (mid-1970s), antler, metal, Private Collection.

Contemporary artist Mattiusi Iyaituk uses antler in a number of ways, sometimes as detailing or inlay, but most prominently he used the natural shape and curve of the antler with little alteration to its form. The points of the antler can represent fins, tails or hands. Mattiusi also uses antler as a base for many of his mixed-media sculptures, representing more spiritual and abstract forms.

Mattiusi Iyatuk (1950-), Akulivk, “My fantasy to one day see, to believe, Iaqluullamiluuq” (2008), stone, caribou antler, MIA Collection.

Next time you visit MIA, keep an eye out for all the ways artists use antler in their works. Find out more about materials in Inuit art, such as ivory and whalebone on the MIA blog!

– Posted by: Emma Ward, MIA’s Visitor Services Officer

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