The modern and contemporary art of Greenland is little known outside of Greenland and Denmark. So far, only a few artists have been able to make a name for themselves internationally. Jonasie Faber, who emigrated to Canada, is one of them. The works of three Greenlandic artists can be admired until July, 2022 in the special exhibition “Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology” at the Museum of Contemporary Native Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The exhibition was co-curated by the director of the Art Museum in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland.
As unknown to us, the art of the largest island in the world may be, one art form has managed, however, to create an enthusiastic, international community of collectors: the Tupilak carvings.
Originally, Tupilait (singular: Tupilak) were harbingers. Mostly created by shamans and then brought to life, they were originally made of organic material, which could also contain human remains. The purpose of their creation was to cause harm or even death to a certain other person. This was also not entirely safe for the one who made it, since the Tupilak could also be directed against him.
Once widespread, this practice of deleterious magic declined sharply as a result of Christianisation. It did last longer though in the long inaccessible East Greenland. While southern and western Greenland were repopulated from Denmark as early as the 18th century (after the first settlement by Scandinavians had come to an end in the 15th century), eastern Greenland remained largely isolated until the end of the 19th century. East Greenland is, therefore, often referred to as the “home” of the Tupilait, and many of the well-known carver and carver families originate from there.
The Tupilait produced as art objects are in the real sense only images of Tupilait, because they are no longer produced to cause harm. The shapes and the materials used in some cases have also changed. As Tupilait are usually made from a single piece of material, sperm whale and orca teeth are mainly used, which determine the maximum size and shape of the figure. To set a color contrast, another material is used for the eyes only. In addition to whale teeth, the carvers use caribou antlers and wood, sometimes but rarely stone and musk ox horn. The names of the artists were seldom documented by early collectors and the works themselves were not signed. Styles and themes are at times so special that pieces can be attributed to artists or families, or at least to a location. For the majority of the more than 50 Tupilak figures in the collections of the Museum Cerny, no artist name has been conveyed. There are exceptions, however, such as the Tupilak figure carved from whale tooth by Anda Nuko from Cape Dan (Figure 1), which probably dates from the 1970’s and was part of a larger donation of sculptures and Tupilak figures that the museum received in 2021.
In addition, different types can be classified. An example of this is the Tupilak figure shown in Figure 2, also made from a whale tooth. It represents a kind of helping spirit of a shaman, an Amotortoq. Some Tupilak figures are depicted crawling, for example the snow worm, whose shape is partly human and partly animal, one half of which is shown as a skeleton. Figure 3 shows such a snow worm made from whale tooth. Transformation representations can also be found frequently. The wooden figure in Figure 4has a dog or bear body and a human face. Although literature specialised on the subject is sparse, the works of art enjoy unbroken popularity, also here in Europe. The endangered species protection regulations that apply today have resulted in a change in the material. Whale tooth is used less and less and antlers are becoming more and more popular as a substitute. The different qualities of the material also lead to changes in the designs/portrayals. What is certain is that this art form will remain with us. It is flexible enough to adapt to changes. And there is also no lack of talent among artists. Not least thanks to the Internet, works from Greenland are becoming more and more popular here in Europe.
Martin Schultz, Museum Cerny / Translation by Martha Cerny