Exceptional Torso

Archives | Alaska

Exceptional Torso

Alaska

Punuk culture (Archaic Eskimo)
9th-12th century
Carved walrus tooth
Height: 7 ¾ in. (19 cm)

Excavated at Kialegak, St. Lawrence Island
Presumably ex collection Adelaide De Menil & Ted Carpenter, New York
Ex collection Jeffrey Myers, New York
Ex John Giltsoff, Brussels, acquired from the above
Ex European private collection
Published: Winter Bruneaf 2014 catalog, Galerie Indigènes / John Giltsoff pp. 36-37
Exhibited: Parcours des Mondes 2014, John Giltsoff

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A headless elongated torso with spare lines and geometric markings, stylized arms and lower limbs… Are we looking at an idol from the Cyclades, a prehistoric Venus of Lespugue, or an ancestor from Easter Island?
The truth is elsewhere: this figure carved in marine ivory, patinated by the cold, the wind and the passage of time, comes from those vast frozen lands of the Far North.
This sublime fragment is redolent with a sense of universal timelessness...

Only a short distance off the coasts of Siberia, in the hostile milieu of the Far North, the first ancient Eskimo civilizations crossed the Bering Strait to establish themselves in Alaska around 2000 B.C.
These semi-nomadic populations of hunters following the migration of the large sea mammals – whales, walruses, seals – progressively established themselves on St. Lawrence Island and the coasts of Alaska, giving birth to the Old Bering Sea cultures (200 B.C. to 500 A.D.) notably followed by the Punuk era starting around 800-900 A.D.

For a more detailed discussion of the Punuk style, see "Gifts from the Ancestors, Ancient Ivories of Bering Sea", Fitzhugh W., Princeton University Art Museum, 2009.

Many of the archaic Eskimo excavated ivory “idols” show deeply incised lines on their faces and bodies that represent tattoos and uyaghqutat (amulet straps in the St. Lawrence Island Yupik language), suggesting that tattooing and other forms of adornment were not only traditional ancient customs; they also worked as vehicles for transforming the body, whether through aesthetic or ritual means.

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