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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Kwakwaka'wakw, Gwatsinuxw (Quatsino) Band
Sea Otter Bowl
Hardwood & Beads, 10½" Length, c.1780-1820
Kwakwaka'wakw, Gwatsinuxw (Quatsino) Band Sea Otter Bowl
Kwakwaka'wakw, Gwatsinuxw (Quatsino) Band Sea Otter Bowl

The sea otter was a significant animal in the history of the Northwest Coast.

Sea otters were hunted for their luxurious pelts, which Northwest Coast peoples sometimes incorporated into garments used as ceremonial regalia. When Capt. James Cook’s expedition spent time in Nootka Sound and later entered the port of Canton, China, they found that the otter pelts they had traded for buttons and nails were worth significant sums on the Chinese market. On their return to England, the news set off an international rush for the soft brown gold of otter pelts.

Despite such cultural significance, there are very few carvings that pay homage to the creature. Depicted floating on its back devouring its food, this carving depicts one of the animal's most familiar poses, as they often repose, feed and even sleep on their backs afloat.

Functionally, the bowl was made to serve fish or seal oil as an accompaniment to dried or smoked fish. Grease bowls of this kind from the southern Northwest Coast are often conceived as an animal-form sculpture that has been hollowed out. On the northern coast, such a vessel is more likely to be conceived as a traditional abstract bowl form to which are appended the head, limbs, and tail of the represented creature or crest emblem.

The hollowing of both these vessel types often includes, as in this case, an opening much smaller than the bowl itself, resulting in the thinned-down and deeply undercut rim edge that lends a refined and delicate quality to the carving.

Carved in an early style, the entire surface of this bowl is lightly textured with tiny, parallel grooves that run around and across the various parts of the otter and bowl. This type of finely grooved surface is a very old finishing technique seen on documented objects from the earliest historical period.


Exhibited: Jackson Pollock et le Chamanisme
Pinacothèque de Paris, 2008