Old Bering Sea I culture
200 B.C. – 100 A.D.
Carved walrus tooth
Height: 3 in. (7.8 cm)
Excavated on Punuk Island, Alaska, summer 2012
Ex Bonhams San Francisco, December 2013
Ex collection Donald Ellis, Canada
Ex private collection, Paris, acquired from the above, 2014
Art of the Arctic: Reflections of the Unseen, D. Ellis, 2015, plate 7
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 sculpted head, patinated by the cold, the wind and the passage of time, comes from the vast frozen lands of the Arctic.
This 2000-year-old-Okvik head is carved from a fossilized walrus tusk. It is exceptional in terms of its size, its spare lines, and the refinement and extreme stylization of the features.
Walrus ivory was the most abundant material found on St. Lawrence Island and near the coasts around the Bering Strait. Walrus ivory survived well-preserved for many centuries not only because of its dense material quality but because Okvik artifacts ended up buried in ice and permafrost, the permanently frozen soil of the Far North. Their long interment imparted a rich coloration with subtle variations and deep patina to the ivory as can be seen here.
The style of this head is characteristic of the Okvik culture (Old Bering Sea I), an archaic civilization of the Arctic which developed on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska during the first millennium B.C.
The way in which the features are stretched across the face confers a remarkable elegance and interiority to the sculpture, reminiscent of the art of Giacometti or of Brancusi.
A veritable giant in miniature, this hieratic head has a timeless, universal quality to it.