19. A Sphinx Carving

By Martin Crevier (@Crevier__Martin)

This carving of a Sphinx came to the British Museum in 1896 from Haida Gwaii, a Pacific archipelago off the coast of what is today the Canadian province of British Columbia. The artist, Simeon Stildha (1799-1889), was a chief of the Haida people, the islands’ indigenous inhabitants.

Although European traders regularly visited the archipelago, sustained contact with the Haida did not occur until the mid-1800s. By the 1870s, when the carving was made, European-introduced disease had decimated over half of Haida Gwaii’s population. With the accompanying trauma and social dislocation, many turned to the recently arrived Christian missionaries. It is in one of their bibles that Stilthda first saw an illustration of the Great Sphinx at Gizeh.

As such, the carving can be seen as a striking example of hybridity and cultural encounter; a symbol of ancient Egypt carved from Pacific Northwest red cedar in the symmetrical and evocative style of the Haida. This is for instance how the British Museum chooses to present the object.

We should however be wary of this impression. Although it clearly reflects a particular moment of transition in Haida history, it also assumes that there is a pure Haida culture and that European influence has somewhat corroded its spirit. Doing so, we reproduce colonialism’s obsession with purity and ‘the noble savage.’ The Sphinx is no less Haida than the totems poles and masks also in the British Museum’s collection.

It is thus perhaps best to simply see cultures as dynamic and ever-changing.   

Image: Sphinx figure made of wood, plaster (1874-78). The British Museum -AN840748001. Used under Creative Commons.

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