Possibly AMIDLAK (1897-1961), SAMWILLIE AMIDLAK (1902-1984), OR LEVI AMIDLAK (1931-1998/99), INUKJUAK (PORT HARRISON)
Totemic Composition With Bears, Otter, and Seal, c. 1953-54
stone, ivory, and inlay, 12 x 3.5 x 5.5 in (30.5 x 8.9 x 14 cm)
ESTIMATE: $10,000 — $15,000
PRICE REALIZED: $24,000
Provenance Private Collection, Ottawa.
Totem-style carvings were made for a few years in the early 1950s (almost exclusively in Inukjuak), following the publication of James Houston's 1951 instructional publication Sanajasak: Eskimo Handicrafts, which included a fanciful drawing by Houston that "mashed up" Inuit and Northwest Coast imagery (see the drawing on p. 55 of The First Passionate Collector, referenced below). The booklet was quickly withdrawn but imagery inspired by it persisted for a few years.
A number of these carvings transcended the rather comical look of the drawing, but nothing we have seen prepared us for this magnificent work: a sculpture of generous proportions, true imaginative bravado, and spectacular workmanship. The delicate ivory and inlay details testify to the artist's skill and provide a subtle contrast to the deep green of the smoothly polished stone. The period of two or three years after the initial inspiration gave the artist time to develop a strong personal style. The result is a masterpiece not only of the genre, but also of early Inukjuak art.
The artist's identity is open to speculation. Totemic Composition is almost surely by the same hand that carved the Bear-Walrus Totem referenced below. We sense a distinct similarity to the Bear of c. 1954, attributed most recently to Amidlak and previously to an unrelated artist Samwillie Amidlak. Another stylistically somewhat different but fine Head and Torso of a Bear from c. 1952, in the Guild Collection, has usually been attributed Levi Amidlak, Amidlak's son . Whichever one of you created this brilliant sculpture, hats off to you!
1. Darlene Wight has done a lot of research trying to sort out the confusion between Amidlak, his son Levi Amidlak, and Samwillie Amidlak. See her section on Amidlak in Early Masters. She had previously attributed Bear to Samwillie Amidlak (see The First Passionate Collector, cat. 15).
References: For a smaller but very similar Bear-Walrus Totem see Walker's Auctions, May 2017, Lot 1. See also Darlene Coward Wight, "The Handicrafts Experiment, 1949-53" in The First Passionate Collector: The Ian Lindsay Collection of Inuit Art (Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1990) cats. 22-27 for various examples of Inuit "totems." See the section on Amidlak in Darlene Coward Wight, Early Masters: Inuit Sculpture 1949-1955 (WAG, 2006), pp. 44-49.