Contrary to what some may think, narwhals do in fact exist! Sometimes called the unicorn of the sea, these unique and mysterious creatures are known for their spiralled ivory tusk, which is actually an overgrown canine tooth that can grow up to three metres long. While there is still some debate about the main purpose of this tusk, we know for certain that narwhals are an important part of Inuit culture, serving as a source of healthy food and inspiration for many legends featuring these weird whales. Keep reading to find out how Inuit artists have depicted narwhals in their art.
Pauojoungie Saggiak Happy Narwhal (2019) Stonecut 52.7 x 94.3 cmREPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION DORSET FINE ARTS COURTESY FEHELEY FINE ARTS © PAUOJOUNGIE SAGGIAK
This image will narwhal-ways make me smile! In this print, Pauojoungie Saggiak graphically renders a narwhal with its tusk to the sky, perhaps coming up from a long dive—narwhals regularly dive 800+ metres below the surface! Saggiak brings her bold linework and crisp blocks of colour together for a playful portrayal of these mysterious and beautiful creatures.
Billy Gauthier Narwhal Breaching the Waves (n.d.) Serpentinite and whalebone 19 x 15.2 x 12.7 cmCOURTESY THE ARTIST
Narwhals are a frequent subject for Nunatsiavut artist Billy Gauthier, whose mixed-media sculptures reflect his experiences out on the land hunting and fishing. In this depiction, his careful choice of material and extensive technical skills come together to give a mystical quality to a spotted narwhal bursting from the rippling waves of black stone.
Veronica Kadjuak Manilak Sedna with Narwhals and Fish (n.d.) duffle, felt and embroidery floss 107 x 78 cmCOURTESY WINNIPEG ART GALLERY
You’ll often find narwhals alongside Sedna, the guardian of the sea and marine life. In this wall hanging, Veronica Kadjuak Manilak shows the mother of sea creatures centered against a red backdrop in the shape of a seal pelt. Embroidered chevrons in contrasting shades highlight the texture of the mirrored narwhals flanking her sides.
Peter Morgan The Legend of the Woman Who Became a Narwhal (1976) Stonecut 54.5 x 74.3 cmCOURTESY FÉDÉRATION DES COOPÉRATIVES DU NOUVEAU-QUÉBEC
This print tells the story of a woman who, in order to escape an abusive husband that treats her like a sled dog, jumps into the icy ocean. Peter Morgan is able to capture the exact moment of transformation, showing her sealskin amauti turning into the speckled skin of a narwhal as she breaches the surface of the water.
Sem Malliki Taleelayo and Narwhal (1977-78) Green stone and antlerCOURTESY IAF
What at first appears to be a smirking hunter imagining his catch turns out to be another variation on the legend of sea goddess Sedna, or Taleelayo, as she’s known to many in the Qikiqtaaluk region. Knowing the identity of this figure speaks to the power she holds as the spirit who controls the animals of the ocean. This simple sculpture tells a story and serves as a reminder to keep Taleelayo appeased—otherwise hunters won’t have much to dream about!
Germaine Arnaktauyok A Woman Who Became a Narwhal (1993) StencilCOURTESY SMITHSONIAN NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
The great storyteller Germaine Arnaktauyok explores yet another myth featuring a woman and a narwhal in this saturated pastel print. This scene is from the story of the Blind Boy and the Loon, a story of revenge where a blind hunter’s cruel mother is dragged into the sea. Arnaktauyok depicts the end of the story, with the mother’s long braid twisting into a spiralled tusk as she becomes the first narwhal.