"Gifts From the Ancestors: Ancient Ivories of Bering Strait," a major exhibition that brings to light the artistry and life practices of the hunters who worked across two millennia in what are now the American and Russian sides of the Bering Strait, opens Saturday, Oct. 3, at the Princeton University Art Museum.
The exhibition features nearly 200 of the finest works of walrus ivory carving drawn from the museum's own holdings along with loans from more than 20 public and private collections around the globe, including rare examples from recent Russian excavations at Ekven, Chukotka, which will be exhibited for the first time in North America. In addition, works by award-winning contemporary artist and St. Lawrence Islander Susie Silook and master carvers Sergei Tegryl'kut and Mikhail Leyviteu from Chukotka will be presented to bridge past and present and reveal how today's ivory artists continue to be inspired by ancient forms and motifs and the millennia-old relationships among people, animals and the environment.
"The extraordinary works of art on view in this exhibition are unlike the work of any other of the world's cultures," said Museum Director James Steward. "They demand our close attention in their gentle, detailed beauty. Even as our focus here is primarily aesthetic and sociological, these survivals from the ancient past have a shocking timeliness as we increasingly think about how such indigenous artistic practices can survive the onslaught of climate change."
The appearance of small, exquisitely carved ivories in the Bering Strait region marks an extraordinary florescence in the art and culture of North America. The discovery in the 1930s and 1940s of superb carvings of animals, mythical beasts, shape-shifting creatures, masks and human figurines astounded scholars and excited collectors. Nevertheless, the remarkable objects that belong to this world of hunting-related art remain largely unknown.
"Bering Sea Eskimo sculpture and engraved arts, like the art of Late Paleolithic peoples, illustrate the capacity for Arctic hunting cultures to produce works of art as rich in spiritual content as they are in technological complexity and aesthetic beauty," said William Fitzhugh, curator of North American archaeology and director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution, who is serving as guest co-curator of the exhibition. "Through these ornamented harpoons and hunting implements, we begin to understand the connections between art, technology and spiritual beliefs that have been central to the lives of hunting peoples for thousands of years."
Archaeologists have spent nearly a century examining artifacts excavated from frozen sites and cemeteries along the shores of the Chukchi and Bering Seas, where inhabitants of shared Eurasian and North American heritage have resided for more than 2,000 years. The artifacts include hunting implements, tools, ornaments, ritual objects and figures in human and animal form.
The exhibition, related catalog and website explore the historical, cultural and archaeological significance of the ivories as well as the more recent social issues surrounding these objects from myriad perspectives, including those of indigenous communities.
The exhibition is on view through Sunday, Jan. 10. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.