Mantelpieces are places of memory and connect us to family history through the objects we choose to display there. Growing up I was always fascinated by the unusual stone fish that occupied, rather precariously, the fireplace at home. After a particularly raucous birthday party the fish fell from its perch and its tail snapped off! Knowing that it was an heirloom that my dad had been given as a child, I began to look into its obscure history, primarily out of guilt at having damaged it and then, as I learnt more, it became something more akin to charting an unexpected offshoot of my family tree. The findings were fascinating.
On the underside of the fish is the etched lettering and numbering system of a maker’s mark – the encrypted signature of the craftsman. The alphabetic numerical signature of ‘E .9. 1758’ can be traced back to Eli Weetaluktuk who was one of three brothers working in the Kangirqsukallaq camp in the Inukjuak region at the north of Canada’s Hudson Bay. The date of Weetaluktuk’s carving is unknown but can be dated to the late 1940s due to the natural faults in the stone which predate the 1948 exploration, and influence, in the Inukjuak region by James Houston. Houston returned two years later with a grant of $8000 from the Northwest Territories Council: some of this money went towards buying a fishing boat for the Weetaluktuks, meaning that they could journey farther afield in search of better grade stone with fewer structural weaknesses, The Moorhouse Fish clearly has had no outside influence either. Weetaluktuk’s carving stands on the doorstep of a revitalisation of indigenous Inuit arts and crafts, a new era where works such as The Moorhouse Fish were commodified by the Hudson Bay Company’s encouragement and support for Inuit communities by means of their artistic creations.
After the collapse of the Canadian fur trade in the early 20th century, the Hudson Bay Company was set up to support the weakened livelihoods of indigenous communities. The HBC saw the opportunity for a new department within their shops for the sale of Inuit artworks and community co-ops were set up so that artists could form a network between the centralised Company and themselves. A network of artists co-operatives that fed into the centralised HBC: a social network built on fair division of proceeds and the importance of people’s connections to things – a far more socialist economic structure that places the means of production, and therefore the results thereof in the people’s hands. The biographical beginnings of Weetaluktuk’s carving offer a material insight into the networks that sustained the Inuit population and has meant that their traditional way of life has been maintained for generations even if it has had to adapt with the times.
The life of The Moorhouse Fish changes drastically, and becomes more personal, once it was taken out of the commodity sphere of the HBC. It is unknown as to the date, but as a worker for the Northwest Territories Council, the fish came into Mr Moorhouse’s possession, most likely in the early 1950s and was then given by Mr Moorhouse’s daughter in her old age to my father as a child in the 1970s. It was most likely given as a gift in the first instance due to its faults, meaning that it could not be sold: the material origins of the object dictating its trajectory and its exchange in the form of a gift. The process of gift giving means that unlike value accumulation in purely economic terms, the value of gifts is far more social and hard to pin down because of the human influence of generosity rather than that of monetary gain. It is the significance of human generosity that analyses such as those by Wilk and Cliggett neglect to address because they cannot be put into theoretical terms (see Further Reading). Human connection to objects and heirlooms such as The Moorhouse Fish is at the forefront of the carving’s biography but can only appreciated by those that have interacted with it on a personal, material level – having heard its anecdotal, intrinsically familial history.
The concept of objects inspiring either resonance or wonder in their viewer is particularly pertinent when encountering The Moorhouse Fish. The carving has a tangible resonance: a personable, experiential human connection that gives the object it’s own agency and connects current day involvement with that of the past. It has a place and a character within my own family history and holds particular memories of personal history as one of my father’s most treasured objects. However, as a result of its previously unknown history it has held a mystical status as an embodiment of a foreign, unknown culture and therefore. The Moorhouse Fish’s biography occupies a place within history similar to that of objects from colonial collections that have had meaning mapped onto them by external influences; the difference with this artwork being that the people associated with it have personal experience or knowledge of the culture and folkloric traditions surrounding its creation.
As an indigenous artwork that was taken out of its native cultural context, The Moorhouse Fish is a prime example of a transnational object. Unlike many museum collections, the object’s journey between the Northwest Territories of Canada and England was not as a result of institutional colonialist plunder and thus the carving does not have the associated problematic politics of other transnational artefacts. Instead, The Moorhouse Fish spans two disparate cultures connecting time, place and people: proof of the carving’s independent historical agency. Furthermore, in many Inuit cultures family is seen as a extended group – not just those that are related by blood but those that may be linked by marriage or trade and as such, the carving may be seen as a token of bonding between the Weetaluktuk, Moorhouse and Rigby families. The transnational identity of the carving, without the typical associations of imperial influence, has formed a network around the object that has expanded time and again throughout the Fish’s life and gives a material context to the belief and familial systems of the object’s indigenous, and latterly, adoptive cultures.
The biography of The Moorhouse Fish is an evolving story that has been transmitted through generations of oral story-telling. Parallels can be drawn between the Inuit oral traditions and my introduction to the object through the stories my father told me about his primary encounters with the carving at a young age: it is these stories that sparked my initial interest in the Fish. Here we see an extension of the folkloric tales and histories that have been passed through centuries of Inuit communities, forming a part of their indigenous palimpsestic collective identity and connecting them to their origins. Moreover by my own titling of the carving, dubbed The Moorhouse Fish, I have contributed to the ongoing biography of the object. Primarily a family heirloom, the carving brings up questions surrounding transfer of personal historical knowledge; childhood acquisition of knowledge through language and first hand encounters; the attribution of meaning and value; the networks and economies involved in The Moorhouse Fish’s life and how all these factors have affected the biography of this key example of early 20th century aboriginal Canadian soapstone carving.
The objects we surround ourselves with, no matter how trivial, come to represent something of us: our identity, history, the places we come from – geographical or otherwise. Our personal connections further the life cycle of such personal effects forming a continuous narrative that connects objects and people to their pasts, presents and futures.
Fontijn, David. 2013. “Epilogue: Cultural Biographies and Itineraries of Things: Second Thoughts.” In: Mobility, Meaning and Transformations of Things: Shifting Contexts of Material Culture through Time and Space, edited by Hahn Hans Peter and Weiss Hadas, pp. 183-96. Oxford; Oakville: Oxbow Books.
Inuit Art Foundation:
Katilvik Artists Index:
Opp, James. 2015. “Branding the Bay/La Baie’’: Corporate Identity, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and the Burden of History in the 1960s.” In: Canadian Historical Review 96 (2): 223–56.
Wilk, Richard R., and Cliggett, Lisa C. 2007. Economies and Cultures: Foundations of Economic Anthropology. Boulder, CO: Routledge. pp. 153 – 176.