American Art

George Twok Aden Ahgupuk

American/Alaska, 1911-2001

Biography

George Aden Ahgupuk was born in 1911 in the village of Shishmaref, on the Bering Sea coast of the Seward Peninsula. His native name was Twok.

Ahgupuk attended the government school in Noorvik when he was a child, but he only completed the fourth grade. Even then he preferred to draw pictures rather than study. As a youth, he participated in the annual reindeer roundups and hunted seal and walrus for food.

Ahgupuk’s early pen and ink drawings on skins often measure 24 inches by 36 inches or larger. These epic panoramas might include all of the following: an entire village scene, a reindeer roundup, men in kayaks hunting seals or polar bears, women ice fishing, a dogsled team, a blanket toss, and even a map of Alaska. Narrow strips of red alder-dyed reindeer skin are often threaded along the edges to form ribbon-like borders. On others, multiple strips of the dyed skin subdivide a larger skin into 9 smaller panels.

In 1936, American artist Rockwell Kent purchased some of Ahgupuk’s drawings while on a trip to Alaska. Although the two artists had not personally met, upon returning to New York, Kent wrote about his adventures and proclaimed his “discovery of the greatest of Eskimo artists.” Time Magazine and The New York Times each featured articles about Ahgupuk in January, 1937, and included one of two drawings that Kent had collected. Kent was instrumental in Ahgupuk’s induction into the American Artists Group, which later exhibited some of his work and also issued a series of Christmas cards that reproduced his drawings. Examples of some of these cards are at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art in Washington, DC.

In addition to the examples in the collection of the California Academy of Sciences, major holdings of Ahgupuk’s work are in the collections of the University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. The Alaska State Museum at Juneau, the Seattle Museum of History and Industry (Seattle, WA), the Riverside Municipal Museum (Riverside, CA), the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC), and the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum (Oklahoma City, OK) also have works by him. Ahgupuk probably produced several thousand drawings and paintings during his career, many of which are in private collections.