Fugitive Ivories, or, Enslavement and the Walrus

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Editor’s Note: This is the fifth post in the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.

Two men on two tusks. Designed as a dialogic pair sometime between 1830 and 1860, the two figures operate as visual opposites. A white man stands firm and impatient, heels dug into the grass. He smokes a pipe as he conceals a baton (and nearly imperceptible chains) behind an ugly green coat. Facing the opposite direction, a Black man is on the move, appearing despondent and distressed. When this peculiar pair of painted ivory tusks first featured at a Massachusetts auction house in August 2021, accompanying text connected the iconography to two distinct changes in United States politics: the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Supreme Court’s so-called Dred Scott Decision of 1857, which denied citizenship to people of African descent. The abolitionist potential of this painted imagery is questionable—the caricatured face of the Black man strains an obvious anti-slavery reading.

Unidentified artist, Painted Ivories, ca. 1830-1860, walrus tusk, pigment, mounted on wooden base. Image Courtesy of Eldred’s Auction House.

What I want to explore instead are the questions posed by the artwork’s materiality: what does it mean to paint slavery iconography onto a pair of walrus tusks, and what is at stake in considering the Arctic as a landscape connected to Black enslavement?

The Arctic is rarely associated with Black geographies of enslavement. Instead, the narratives of figures such as Michael Healy, Matthew Henson, and Tété-Michel Kpomassie transformed the Circumpolar North into a geography of Black achievement and heroism over the course of the twentieth century.1 The recent profiling of Linda Charlie and Evangeline Charlie in Vogue has been a celebratory reminder of the power of Black Inuit visibility.

Charles Dawson, Matthew Henson Discovering the North Pole, ca. 1940, Produced for the American Negro Exposition of 1940.

Elsewhere, a growing body of scholarship has begun to chart what Maxine Savage has coined as “Black Borealisms,” the enduring entanglement between Blackness, the Arctic, and Indigeneity. It has caused me to look at canonical images anew, contemplating, for instance, what is at stake when Inuit artists visualized the story of Tutigaq, a blind man who becomes Black once his vision is restored.2

The past five years have witnessed a veritable boom of interest in the Black Arctic, from the video essay “Call of the Cold” by Temi Odumosu and Nina Cramer, to exhibitions such as “Atlantikumi” at Nuuk Art Museum and “Black Lives in Alaska: Journey, Justice, Joy” at Anchorage Museum. Nevertheless, slavery remains under researched in the region, and these tusks offer a peculiar and tantalizing entry point into the topic.

Whalers at Nuvuk, Alaska, ca. 1900. Samuel Call Collection, 1966-10-136n, Archives, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Painted in the midst of his escape, the Black man floats, ever so slightly, above the ground. The verdant pigments of the grass—affirming Charmaine Nelson’s observation that individuals enslaved in Northern climes preferred to escape in the summer—do not brush the sole of his oversized loafers. As his left foot slips out of its shoe, what sensation awaits the man’s bare foot? Will his next step follow the pull of gravity onto the grass? Or, will his foot instead caress the smooth, lustrous surface of ivory?

Few recognize the feeling of walking on ivory, except, perhaps, the walrus, whose Latin namesake, Odobenus, has bestowed the marine mammal with the title “tooth-walker.” The animals do not actually walk on their tusks. Instead, walruses depend on the resilience of their tusks in order to haul their thousand-pound, blubber-insulated bodies out of frigid water and onto frozen land. For this reason, Alexis Pauline Gumbs theorizes the walrus tusk as a “miracle” of self-reliance. In this way, the walrus tusk might be the most suitable medium for a painting of a similar miracle: self-liberation from enslavement.

The man’s distressed garments—the upturned white collar, the yellow, blue, green, and pink patches that mend loose-fitting grey pants and a navy shirt, an absence of stockings—are stark in contrast with his sartorial stylings of a refined yellow waistcoat with red-striped lining and a green necktie.3 This juxtaposition of sophistication and survival repeats an iconography of “unauthorized portraiture.” Nelson mobilizes unauthorized portraiture as a term to describe the visualization of Black self-emancipation. Through her pivotal research into Canadian slavery, she has made the astute observation that such imagery violated the illegibility sought by enslaved individuals as they escaped racialized human trafficking. 

As we scrutinize the details of this man’s unauthorized portrait, we must also recognize the other violation that has taken place. The medium of ivory requires the death of the walrus. Only through death does the walrus permit the intimate proximity necessary for humans to observe the thin black lines that chart the animal’s life across the ivory’s smooth and slippery surface. The art market describes these marks as “age lines” and their presence or absence can determine a tusk’s value at auction houses. In the Arctic, however, Inupiaq carvers often describe them as “stress lines.” Walruses accrue lines on their tusks through contact with certain pressure points, such as a rough brawl with another walrus, or unearthing clams, one of their favorite foods, from the seabed. These thin vibrating lines incise a history of the animal’s encounters, a cartography of pinniped pleasure and distress, onto the surface of the tusk.

Detail of walrus stress lines, ca. 1830-1860.

These lines directly inform the composition of the human figures. Behind the white man’s coat, one stress line transforms into an instrument of violence, the baton. But the Black man interacts differently with the stress lines. Look closely at his right hand: he pinches his thumb and forefinger to hold the line. Attentive and sensitive to its fragile nature, he transforms an awkward gesture into a gentle one. This incision of walrus history forms the very shape of his hand. If ivory furnishes a ready base for the articulation of white bodies, the affect of walrus design—accrued through pain and joy—also nourishes the possibility to care for Black bodies.


1. Here I am foregrounding how Black America heroicized the Arctic through Matthew Henson’s achievements.  
2. I am indebted to Anna Vestergaard Jørgensen for this realization.
3. Understanding the enduring sophistication of the man’s clothing is indebted to the scholarship of Jonathan M. Square and his public humanities project “Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom”.

Feature image: Detail from Unidentified artist, Painted Ivories, ca. 1830-1860, walrus tusk, pigment, mounted on wooden base. Image Courtesy of Eldred’s Auction House.
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I am an art historian of the colonial Americas, focusing on the Circumpolar North and Central America between 1700 and 1950. Based at the University of Copenhagen, I emphasize the global entanglements of material and visual culture of the Indigenous Arctic, especially when it coincides with the Black Atlantic and Pacific.

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