Carving Past and Future from Soapstone

Sculpture of Man with Seal, c. 1950
Abraham Pov (Inuit, 1927-1994); Canada
Soapstone; 7 1/4 x 10 x 10 1/4 in.
Gift of the Les Aikman Family

Hauntingly staring directly at onlookers, this Inuit soapstone carving made by the indigenous artisan Abraham Pov is an important artifact in the 20thcentury’s history of Inuit peoples. Prior to the early 1950s the Inuit had been a loosely affiliated group characterized mostly by their nomadic nature. These years, however, saw government-sponsored compulsory acculturation and sedentarization. In response to resulting economic hardships the Canadian government pushed handicrafts as a potential Inuit export. Though at first unsuccessful, due in large part to how well the aboriginal designs fit into period expectations for modern art, the carving’s sale in Southern markets picked up quickly. By the late 1950s art cooperatives and societies based in the North were formed to keep most of the proceeds from sales in the artisans’ communities and the Canadian government had created a standardized symbol of authenticity to dissuade forgeries—one such sticker can be seen at the bottom of the artist’s sculpture alongside his name in Inuktitut syllabics. Together these factors created a multi-million-dollar industry with much of the profits returning to the Inuit by 1964. This crucial aid helped but not entirely move modern Inuit peoples out of poverty, and continues to this day.
Detail of 92.20.8
This sculpture itself is a masterfully crafted work by one of the earliest Inuit sculptors to join the newest iteration of the Inuit’s long tradition of carving. Born in Povungnituk, from which he gets his namesake, early on in his life Abraham Pov moved to Inukjuak. Interestingly the two towns would end up being at the center of Inuit carving production. Having grown up in two Meccas of Inuit carving, Pov’s style is very characteristic of the greater Nunavit area. Common trends we see in this piece are the stylized figures, the abstracted hunter and the hunted seal he leans over are both common motifs; the sculptures shapes rounded to incredible fullness, both reminiscent and possibly even inspiration for 1950s-era Modern artists such as Fernando Botero; and the dark soapstone which indicates the location where the source stone was mined and finishing practices involving rubbing seal blubber on the completed carving. This sculpture contains Pov’s own signature addition: the hunter’s large soulful eyes. Pov’s proficiency in capturing humans by giving his characters the appearance of being deep in thought cemented his preference for depicting men and women hunting and going about traditional Inuit daily life, but more generally sculptures tended to also portray animals and Inuit mythology. 
Inuit carver Etcolopea at work in his igloo putting the finishing touches on a seal carving with a file, March 1956
Gar Lunney / Office nationale du film du Canada / Bibliothèque et Archives Canada / PA-180267

What all modern Inuit sculptures have in common is that they depict a way of life which by the 1950s had already passed on. The irony of this situation is not lost on the carvers who either put the loss’s pathos into their work, or jab at their past with caricature. 

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
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Comments 2

Guest - Collection Department (website) on Thursday, 13 April 2017 03:52

Thank you Linda! We hope that you continue to stop by.

Thank you Linda! We hope that you continue to stop by.
Guest - Linda (website) on Thursday, 30 March 2017 04:38

You have a fascinating blog. Thank you so much for sharing, and warm greetings from Montreal.

You have a fascinating blog. Thank you so much for sharing, and warm greetings from Montreal.
Monday, 20 September 2021

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