Northwest Coast clan leaders commissioned functional artworks from skilled artists to glorify the symbols of clan history and mythology by means of objects used in ceremonial events, such as feasts, memorials, and totem pole raisings. One such type of objects are known as grease bowls, for the eulachon fish oil, commonly known as grease, and seal oil that are served in them as an accompaniment to dried fish or roots, including potatoes. In addition to representing emblems of clan history, some sculptures, such as the subject work, illustrate animals with an important relationship to the people, though they may not depict crest images belonging to the owner. One sea creature frequently seen in sculptured bowls of this type is the seal, hunted for their flesh, oil, and hides. Seal bowls make up a large percentage of the northern-coast grease bowls extant, and their important role is to honor the animals for their part in enabling the survival of the people.
This example is considerably more dynamic than most, with the head and tail of the seal extending sharply upward at a bold angle. Most seal bowls do not lift the ends nearly this high. This leaves the cavity of the bowl rather shallow, but these were made to serve fish or seal oil to individuals or small family groups, so a larger capacity is not necessary.
The design composition of this bowl in a way combines two bowls; one the body of a seal hollowed out, and the other a traditional bowl type that has tall, upswept ends with a pointed angle at the peaks. Such bowls were often made with plain textured surfaces on the inside and outer surfaces, and no other design elaboration. The top rims of these bowls are often wide, and undercut slightly both inside the bowl and out. Designed to honor the canoes that enabled the hunting of sea mammals and other marine food resources, these characteristics reflect traditional canoe features, such as the wide tops of the gunwales and the hollowed groove that parallels the rim on the inside. Canoes only feature one such groove, but this and other bowls frequently include two or more tapering grooves that add visual elegance to the sculptures.
The image of the seal wraps snugly around the circumference of the 'inner' bowl, with the head and tail protruding at each end. The sculpture of both ends is more detailed in this example than many others, and the two-dimensional formline patterns on the outer surface are composed with finer detail than is the norm. The head of the seal features a bulging, round eye and prominent mouth with many small teeth, including large, somewhat exaggerated canines. The tail is carved free between the hind flippers of the seal, and its delicate edges and pointed upper surface go beyond the usual plain form of other seal-bowl tails. Beautifully executed formline designs flow back from head to tail, covering the outer surface. Within these formlines are depicted the pectoral fins on each side, composed of an ovoid shape and three slightly hollowed digits that bend up at the ends.
All in all, this bowl is a true masterpiece of northern Northwest Coast design and sculpture, which once was the prized possession of generations of a noble Tsimshian family.
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