• Feature

From Plastic Teeth to Soap Stripes

Tracing the Recent History of Inlay in Inuit Art

Jun 24, 2020
by Mark London

Many years ago, I was called in to purchase the art collection of an early pioneer of Arctic aviation, a bush pilot who made frequent trips to some early settlements in the 1940s through the 1960s. 

Amongst the many wonderful pieces he acquired in his travels was a delightful polar bear bust with painstakingly carved inset teeth. It was hard to tell, and I wondered whether these brilliantly white teeth were fashioned from walrus ivory or caribou antler. I carefully packed up the collection to transport to the gallery, and when everything was unpacked the teeth were nowhere to be found. A frenzied search through a mountain of crumpled packing paper revealed an unexpected surprise: both the upper and lower rows of teeth had been fashioned not from ivory or antler as one would expect. Instead I found two strips of plastic teeth strung along the floor. Picking them up, it occurred to me that they were likely repurposed from an everyday food container. 

Though these plastic teeth might seem like an irreverent choice of material, they are actually a testament to the ingenuity of the artist. By choosing a pliable material, rather than hard bone or antler, the artist could easily cut while laying the material flat and then simply bend and insert these denture strips into grooves cut in the top and bottom of the jaw.


Mother and Child (c. 1953) Stone, ivory and soap inlay 24.2 × 28 × 21.6 cm

I have long admired works produced during the early years of the commercial period of Inuit art history, generally considered to begin in 1949 with the first exhibition of Inuit art in Southern Canada at the Canadian Guild of Crafts (today’s La Guilde) in Montreal, QC— a watershed moment in the history of Inuit art. Thanks to the efforts of James Houston, the Guild and the Hudson’s Bay Company, who collaborated in staging the exhibition, art buyers in Southern Canada became exposed to the artistic expressions of the Indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic. With this new interest came an exploding demand for Inuit art in the Southern market, which resulted in a burgeoning industry in the Arctic where many Inuit tried their hand at creating objects for sale. 

The first half of the 1950s saw a period of tremendous experimentation where artists explored the possibilities offered them by a myriad of raw materials. While the Arctic had long provided caribou antler, walrus ivory or driftwood, the arrival of modern tools and a more sedentary lifestyle afforded greater exploration into the possible uses of local supplies of steatite, serpentinite, and other rock, depending on local availability. 


Pilipusi Novalinga
Ashtray, Match and Cigarette Holder (c. 1950) Stone, ivory and soap inlay 7.9 × 11.9 × 13.2 cm

The archaeological record suggests that for generations, utilitarian or fetish objects were ornamented with a technique akin to scrimshaw involving etching into a smooth surface and darkening the etched lines with soot or lamp black, and perhaps even inlay of contrasting materials such as baleen. This interest in ornamentation is especially evident in artworks produced in the first decade of the early commercial period where many artists explored the possibilities of combining several materials and techniques. 

Soap, paraffin wax and vinyl records— these are some of the materials Inuit makers reached to in these experimental early days. While many artists from across the Arctic experimented with a variety of textures within the same piece (contrasting areas of polished vs. rough stone), some of the earliest sculptures from Inukjuak, Nunavik, QC, show how artists there explored contrasting colours by incising lines that were later inlayed with either soap or paraffin wax. While the former is more common, the latter afforded greater possibilities in terms of pigmentation, such as melted wax crayons. Akeeaktashuk (1898–1954) is perhaps the most notable example of an artist using soap inlay to augment his scenes of Inuit hunters and their prey. 


Judas Ullulaq
Polar Bear and Friend (n.d.) Stone and composite 29.2 × 36.8 × 19.1 cm

Possibly the most surprising example of innovation in this early period is the use of less common materials such as melted phonograph records and the food container plastic of those polar bear teeth. Artists were able to give a second life to broken objects and discarded materials in an era when such items were not easily replaced. Another example would be Lucie Angalakte Mapsalak, who employed glass, likely repurposed from a discarded doll, to make the hauntingly lifelike eyes of her owl sculptures. Occasionally, carvers employed the plastic handles of broken screwdrivers for a similar purpose. 

Early sculptures from both Inukjuak and Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, often feature inset faces carved from caribou antler or walrus ivory. Ivory was often accompanied by the use of scrimshaw to add yet another layer of contrast and detail. While ivory and antler inlaid faces are the most common, sculptors from Ivujivik, Nunavik, QC, would often employ pieces of limestone brought back from walrus hunting trips to Pujjunaq (Mansel Island), NU. 

While inlay is more common in areas where the local stone is very soft, the use of inlay or embellishment is often seen in Arviat, NU, where the stone is hard and unyielding. A number of Arviat artists including Eva Talooki Aliktiluk (1927–1994), Annie Okalik and Mary Tutsweetok have used plastic or glass beads as inlay for eyes and mouths or as embellishments to literally dress their sculptures in a nod to the richly decorated amautiit that have long been made and worn with great pride. 


Lucie Angalakte Mapsalak
Two Owls (1960) Bone, stone, plastic and graphite Dimensions variable

Sadly, the use of inlay greatly decreased by the late 1950s. The reasons for this decline are unclear; artists might have tired of the extra effort required, the co-ops might have been frustrated with inset faces mysteriously disappearing during transport south, or perhaps such pieces simply failed to find interested buyers. By the early 1970s, with the implementation of the CITES Treaty (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) and the American Marine Mammal Protection Act, any products that incorporated marine ivory became difficult—or impossible—to export. Whatever the reasons, by the middle of the 1970s both the use of inlay and the practice of scrimshaw were essentially a thing of the past. One notable regional exception is the Kitikmeot Region, where artists such as Judas Ullulaq (1937– 1999), and Nelson Takkiruq (1930–1999) employed antler, ivory and epoxy as inlay throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and where Uriash Puqiqnak, CM, continues the practice today. 

Several contemporary artists incorporate inlays as both an homage to the ingenuity of an earlier generation and also as a means of exploring new possibilities. Mattiusi Iyaituk from Ivujivik often inserts faces carved from limestone and exploits the abstract qualities of caribou antler for use as limbs, hair or tails. Michael Massie, OC, RCA, who hails from Nunatsiavut, uses his skills as a jeweller to inset all manner of materials including silver and precious woods. Idris Moss Davies from Qikiqtarjuaq, NU, is an artist whose works simultaneously pay tribute to early Inuit pieces while also evoking an Art Nouveau sensibility. While hardly a full-blown renaissance, I’m hopeful the technique of inlay is making a modest comeback.   

This Legacy was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.


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