Iqaluit artist Nicole Camphaug knows these animals intimately; walrus, narwhal, caribou, musk-ox, seal. She knows sealskin’s soft and luminous texture, employing it to alter and update shoes of all kinds; kitten-heels, wedges, flats. When she adds natural ring seal to an ordinary black pair of men’s loafers, they become high-fashion, footwear for a sleek debonair.
She knows the density and purity of narwhal and walrus-tusk ivory, and the particular beauty of baleen – the ‘teeth’ (but really the filters) of the bowhead whale. Nicole carves and polishes the ivories to make studs and drop-earrings. They become perfect, glistening ulu shapes. She experiments with baleen, using the hair for inlays and portions of the plate to make ‘pearls.’
“Every few years we get to harvest a bowhead whale,” she says, “and we hunt a lot. Sometimes people have tusks or teeth or antlers under their houses or in their sheds, and I’m so thankful when they give them to me.”
Amazingly, Nicole uses walrus penis, too. Each thin oval slice has a porous interior, resulting in complex organic patterns that allow light to pass through. When she posted a pair of the ovals on Instagram, one of her followers suggested she make Elton John Inuk-style shades out of them. Nicole is willing to try anything with her chosen materials. There’s a few bikers in town who want her to make sealskin seat-covers for their Harleys.
“It is wonderful that there are more and more of us putting Inuit fashion on the main stage,” she exclaims. “It excites me, and makes me happy. For such a small nation we have so much creativity and talent.”
The labour of transforming raw material can be long and tedious, but Nicole is often overwhelmed by its significance. “I am continuing the work of my ancestors. I feel so grateful. It is amazing they ever thought to do this – taking a bone or an antler or a penis and making something out of it. It’s incredible!”
-written by Sarah Swan for the Dene Nahjo Winter Market 2020