Hvalreki is an installation piece, which explores and interrogates human relationships with whales through their residual bones.

The work began through a personal interest in the history that links us humans to the mammals that inhabit the sea. It came about after spending four months in Húsavík, Northern Iceland; exploring the research done by whale researcher Dr Marianne H. Rasmussen at the University of Iceland’s Húsavík Research Center. The residency culminated into an exhibition at The Húsavik Museum (Safnahúsið á Húsavík) in August 2014.

The Icelandic word ‘hvalreki’ can be translated literally as a ‘drifted-ashore whale’. Due to the economic importance of these ‘hvalreki’, the word has also become an expression for good fortune, like a windfall, something unexpected and positive coming your way. The image above is from the Húsavik Museum’s archive. It shows people having their picture taken with a ‘hvalreki’, a narwhal which stranded at Tungufjöru, a beach 20km north of Húsavík in the winter of 1898.


Installation view I, Húsavík

Installation view II, Húsavík

Bone Black – fragments of charred whale bone
One of the earliest forms of black tinting material known to man was made from the charred bone of animal remains, found in their cooking fires. The pigment, called bone black, has been identified in prehistoric paintings and found in Egyptian, Greek and Roman art. It is found throughout European medieval and Renaissance art and later in both oil and watercolour paintings up until modern times.

Bone Black (detail) – fragments of charred whale bone

Installation view III

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Whale Bone frottage – whale bone black, linseed oil
The drawings are made by carefully pressing paper onto the surface of whale bone vertebrae. The paper is then coloured with whale bone black and the projecting areas of the surface become dark, while indented areas remain white.

Hvalreki I (detail)
Depiction of stranded pilot whales, water, whale bone black. The black pigment used for the paintings is made of charred whale bone, ground into powder and diluted with water.

Cast porcelain replicas of fin whale bones

Detail of Information Table


Sonia Levy is currently showing her new project Whale Vow at the Húsavík Whale Museum until July 2016.


The Learned Pig

Sonia Levy

Sonia Levy is a French artist living between London and Iceland. After graduating from Villa Arson, École des Beaux–Art de Nice in France, she undertook a post-graduate course in moving images at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Her practice operates at the intersection of art and the natural sciences, and focuses mainly on nonhuman animals and inorganic others. Currently she is in north Iceland, hosted by The Húsavík Whale Museum, working on a project that explores and interrogates human relationships to whales.