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Walrus Ivory Bowhead Whale Jar by Robert Soonagrook Gambell AK


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by Robert Soonagrook of St. Lawrence Island, North Bering Sea

Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft. It was carved and significantly transformed from marine mammal walrus ivory into Authentic Alaska Native Eskimo handicraft and signed by Alaska Native Eskimo artist Robert Soonagrook.

This unusual piece was carved from a walrus tusk by Robert Soonagrook of Gambell, Alaska, a small Siberian Yup'ik Eskimo village of about 700 people on St. Lawrence Island; just south of the Bering Straits. Their language is spoken on both the U.S. and Russian side of the straits. It's about 140 miles off shore from Nome Alaska, and about 40 miles from Russia. On a clear day (which is rare) you can see the mountains of Russia.

Robert is a new carver and has great teachers. He carves from ivory tusks of walrus, walrus bone and whalebone, and trims them with baleen from Bowhead whales. He is the youngest son of the Soonagrook family of carvers. His father Moses, uncles Billy Boy and Ladd Moses and grandfather William sr. are well known carvers in Alaska. Their work is featured the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Airport collection and in many public, private collections and his carvings are featured in a book titled Eskimo Carvers of the Bering Sea by Dale Kessler.

Much walrus ivory, walrus bone and whalebone are either dug up or found washed up on beaches after storms. Carving is a rich tradition for the Native Alaskan people on St. Lawrence Island; it helps sustain their proud culture and way of life in a very remote and harsh area.

"Uumgek" which is small box or container for things of value in the Siberian Yup'ik language. Robert carved this very nice jewelry box or some a vase from an ivory tusk of a walrus. The center of the tusk has a light golden colored rich mottled texture, surrounded by cream color and pure white. This piece was carved from where the tusk joins with the skull, it's partially hollow. The base is baleen; a fibrous black material in the mouth of Bowhead Whales, they strain food through it. It features a Bowhead Whale on one side and a walrus on the other.

The story behind the piece is about the abundance of the sea to provide for food, clothing and shelter. The Siberian Yup'ik people have lived in the Bering Straits for thousands of years and could craft everyday items from walrus tusk. This harsh Arctic region is an extremely challenging area to live in, yet there is an abundance to be had from the sea. Hunting and gathering was the basis of survival in their culture and continues today. Eskimo stories and myths are full of stories of the hunt. This piece embodies the myths and stories of the animals into one object.

Care of ivory includes avoiding extremes in temperature change and avoid hot dry areas such as direct sun in a window or a heat register. Remember pet dogs, cats and birds also like ivory!

Robert signed his Yup'ik name on the bottom, Ayapaa. The piece measures 3 inches high, 1 7/8 inches wide and 1 1/4 inch front to back.

This a real fine unique piece carved by an Eskimo carver from a very remote area of the world. It would make a great gift from Alaska or a nice addition to a collection. It could be a toothpick holder, vase for small flowers or whatever!

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