Arts & Crafts

Tupilak feared and loved

The tupilak the world-famous figure was originally feared and hated. In its present shape, it is loved by collectors of Inuit art and as an ordinary souvenir for tourists to Ammassalik. The word tupilak describes a wide variety of small figures which represent either tupilaks or other mythical and spiritual creatures and it can be difficult to see the difference.

Once a deadly creature

Originally the tupilak was a creature composed of different materials from the natural world – animal, bird and human remains – even parts taken from a child’s corpse. Those who knew about witchcraft gathered these bits and pieces together in a secret, isolated place, tied them together, chanted magic spells over them and allowed them to suck the energy from their own sexual organs. The tupilak was then ready to be put into the sea and sent off to kill an enemy. This way of getting rid of your enemies was, however, not entirely without risk because if the would-be victim had greater powers of wizardry than the initiator, his power could reverse the tupilaks strength and potency like a boomerang. In other words, it was a dangerous game – a Greenlandic version of Russian roulette. No original tupilaks remain. They have vanished from the scene because they were made of perishable materials. They were, for good reason, ”disposable” tupilaks and were not meant to be seen by others.

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Carving tradition in Ammassalik

When curious, ignorant Europeans came to Greenland, figures were carved to show the visitors what the creature looked like. The tupilak figure is known throughout all of the Eskimo regions. Throughout time, tupilak figures have been carved in different materials all over Greenland. The oldest known tupilaks are made of wood with a skin belt and they resemble the authentic ancient figures. Today these carvings are associated with East Greenland as the old days are more alive there and its culture has always maintained a rich carving tradition. The more grotesque and terrifying the figure - the easier it was to sell. It became quite an industry for east Greenlandic artists who made tupilaks in the form most of us are familiar with. In the 1950`s until the 1970s, large numbers of these figures were produced in a more or less stereotypical form, although now and again the artists created figures of great artistic craftsmanship. Today the figures are still produced but due to whale conservation, they are usually made from reindeer horn or narwhal tusk.

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A living tradition

There is not enough room here to name the talented artists who have made tupilaks throughout the years but one of them has to be mentioned. Gedion Qeqe comes from Tasiilaq in East Greenland and produces tupilaks and mythological creatures of great artistic and technical quality of narwhal tusk and reindeer horn. Contemporary tupilaks are not dangerous. The only risk you take is that you might become fascinated by Greenlandic mythology. But most of us can live with that.

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Face of the Spirits

Greenlandic masks are known primarily in an East Greenlandic context, which can be described as a genuine mask culture. Only a few examples of masks can be found in West Greenland and here the artistic expression is totally different. Not much is known about the role of masks in traditional societies and not many masks exist prior to the turn of the century. The reason may lie in the mask’s strong personal link with its owner. Masks have often followed their owners to the grave or perhaps been destroyed at death. Another theory is that the mask’s power was so great that it had to be destroyed after use in a cult context.

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The use of masks

East Greenlandic masks are often described as dancing masks to be used in connection with different kinds of ceremonies or lamp extinguishing games. Theatrical masks were used for entertainment and house masks, which were smaller than the others, represented a domestic spirit and protected the home and its members.

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Masks were often decorated, even if only modestly in comparison with masks from Canada and Alaska. Usually lines or skeleton ornamentation are carved into the wood. In more seldom cases, bits of hide are present. Now and again teeth and pieces of hair and suchlike are inset. Line ornamentation is also known in tattooing among the Inuit where it functions as a sort of official day calendar e.g. a first birth, the boy’s first seal, etc. The colour of the mask is usually black and comes from lamp sod. On newer masks red an be seen. The simplest mask is made by colouring the face black, cutting out a couple of lines and putting a stick in the mouth, thereby changing the facial expression completely. This mask tradition has been adopted to a great extent by contemporary Greenlandic actors. Another mask tradition is the mitaartut mask which is traditionally made of skin.

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Twelfth Night

This tradition still survives in Ammassalik. At epiphany (6 January) both children and adults visit neighbouring houses and demand whatever they want. This must be given although nowadays it is limited to sweets, buns and loose change. The aim of the masks has nothing to do with the world of spirits. They are just made to make the bearer unrecognisable. The mask material or its decoration may be of all kinds of second hand materials and ideas are plentiful. After the introduction of Christianity, the aim of the mask was reduced to frightening children when they needed a bit of discipline. Later, it became a simple tourist souvenir. Where the old masks could express both sexes in the one mask, masks are now produced in pairs. Masks, including Inuit masks, have been a source of inspiration throughout this century to the world’s artists such as Matisse, Picasso and many others.

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