Art and Amulets
I spend my working life watching and filming the natural world – mostly underwater or on it. My job is to turn these experiences into pieces of film that eventually, mostly by other people, are condensed into wildlife television programmes. Perhaps unsurprisingly it occurs to me that there is a “nature” to our species that has always done this. From the first “Caveman” etching an image on a Paleolithic wall, to the digital photograph posted on Facebook, the need to represent the natural world is distinctively human. Though it would make every anthropocentric postmodernist turn in their grave I do believe we are animals sniffing our way through an often unpredictable and uncertain world. I don’t really know why we are seemingly programmed to represent our natural world, and actually I don’t really need to know. What I do know is I am most attracted to “art” created through continual observation. Most often this work is found in cultures that still have a significant tie with the land or sea.
A couple of years ago I found myself in the Inuit community of Igoolik in the Canadian Arctic. We were filming Bowhead whales. Igoolik means “there is a house there” in Inuktitut because of the old sod houses out on the point. These are summerhouses that for several thousand years were used by the Intuit when the sea ice had melted. We were camping near by and in the evening, after a days filming, our Inuit guides would go up to the huts and conduct there own little amateur archeological digs. Often they would find stuff in the peat around the houses. One day one of the guides found an amulet (little good luck figurines worn on a string round the neck). It was a representation of a Loon – kind of a large water bird – we have similar in the UK called “Great Northern Divers”. It was one of the most beautiful pieces of art I had ever seen. The representation of the bird, it’s spirit, distilled into a pure abstract form carved from a single walrus tooth. In this tiny object I saw the continued observation of generations of intuit living, watching, seeing and interpreting the land.
Fig. Loon Amulet
That evening Louise – our Inuit cook – told me a story. It was about a boy that lived in Igoolik long ago. He was about 3 years old when his father died out on the sea-ice. His mother became very protective of him and started making amulets. Each day she put a new one on him when he went out to play. Soon he was covered in so many amulets he could hardly walk. He became known as “the boy with too many amulets”. On the last evening of our trip our guide Simon gave me an amulet for my boy Finn who was also 3. It was a polar bear head carved out of a walrus tooth. As I was leaving Louise said to me “now Finn can be the boy with just the right amount of amulets”.
Fig. Finn’s Bear Amulet