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The Steven Michaan Collection of North American Tribal Art : The Art of the Spirit World : Northwest Coast
Tlingit or Haida
Miniature Grease Bowl
Hardwood, 3½" Height, c.1800
Tlingit or Haida Miniature Grease Bowl
Tlingit or Haida Miniature Grease Bowl

Small, beautifully refined bowls such as this are one of the great visual deceptions of Northwest Coast art: bowls carved to this same traditional form and embellished with two-dimensional design to the same or a similar degree are often quite large, as much as 14 or 15 inches in width. This elegant miniature, however, is barely as wide as the palm of an average human hand. Saturated with the Eulachon oil, a commonly enjoyed food condiment in the Pacific Northwest, the vessel’s surface has been oxidized nearly black.

Eulachon, also known as candlefish, are small smelt-like fish that live in deep waters throughout the year. In the early spring they migrate into the tidal reaches of mainland rivers to spawn where they are netted. Thousands of little fish are eaten fresh, hung to smoke and dry for preservation, or made into oil, which has been an important item of diet and trade from aboriginal times to the present.

This particular personal grease bowl is an outstanding example of its kind. The refinement of the design composition and the execution its relief-carving are both signs of a skilled master’s hand. The patterns appear to depict a bird image and its classically angular style of design is known to have extended back into the eighteenth century.

To serve the oils, special ‘grease bowls’ were carved and while some were very large and used by groups, small bowls such as this example were made for personal use with meals, enlivening the taste of meals of dried fish or roots.

Such a bowl is a remarkable tactile experience to actually use, cradled easily in a single hand for easy dipping dried halibut strips or meat for a memorable meal.

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