The Object Truth: Jamasee Pitseolak’s World of Stone
The highly conceptual and often humorous work of this well-known Kinngait (Cape Dorset) artist is examined in detail, highlighting his astute ability to convey narrative. The result is a revealing look at the complex and sometimes difficult histories under the stone’s smooth, green surface.
With an eye for meticulous and witty assemblage, this Kinngait artist reconfigures the popular expectation for Inuit sculpture today.
In the past decade, Jamasee Pitseolak has emerged as an important new voice in contemporary Inuit art, and more broadly, Canadian art. With a dynamic vision that is at once highly personal and deliberately dispassionate, the Kinngait (Cape Dorset) sculptor has forged his own distinctive expression, challenging many stereotypes about northern art along the way. His patiently assembled sculptures in stone and bone, representing motorcycles, machines, guitars, pistols, sunglasses, clocks and more, are at once familiar and strange, an uncanny artmaking that raises questions about what an Inuk’s art must, should or can look like as it reimagines the objects he chooses to represent, reorienting the viewer towards them. Along with his contemporaries Shuvinai Ashoona, RCA, Annie Pootoogook (1969-2016), Qavavau Manumie and others, Pitseolak has helped to bring an extraordinary new vernacular into the very centre of artmaking in Kinngait,
contributing powerfully to the community’s claim on contemporary art in the North and in Canada generally.
Highly unconventional, even by the standards of contemporary Inuit artmaking, Pitseolak’s work has nevertheless found an enthusiastic audience in the South, along with commercial and critical success. A 2011 solo exhibition at my family’s gallery (the Marion Scott Gallery, Vancouver) was a relatively early triumph for him, and in 2013 he was one of a small group of Inuit artists included in Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art, the National Gallery of Canada’s groundbreaking show of global Indigenous art. Pitseolak has been a frequent visitor to Southern Canada, giving talks about his work in Vancouver and Ottawa; and in 2010 taking part in an intensive printmaking workshop in Montreal. His sculptures are in the collections of the National Gallery
of Canada and the Bank of Montreal, as well as important private collections in Canada and around the world.
Jamasee Padluq Pitseolak was born in 1968, in Iqaluit, growing up in nearby Kinngait in the southern Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin
Island). Like most members of his generation, he was educated in the state-sponsored school system, attending elementary school in Kinngait and later going on to high school in Iqaluit. Pitseolak comes from a creative family that nurtured his talents from early on: his mother, Ookpik Pitseolak, is a well-known stone carver; his late father, Mark Pitseolak (1945-2012), was a carver and musician; and his paternal grandfather was the renowned photographer and graphic artist Peter Pitseolak, RCA (1902-1973).
Pitseolak made his first stone carvings when he was 8 or 9 years old, but it wasn’t until the 1990s, when he was in his late 20s, that he dedicated himself seriously to his art. Many of his first sculptures drew upon conventional northern subjects, representing polar bears, seals and traditionally clothed Inuit figures. Although he enjoyed devising and making these works, he found that the images reflected neither his reality, since he had never himself hunted or lived a land-based life, nor his sense of his generation’s cultural contemporariness. “I wasn’t happy with what I was doing. It was too mainstream and it wasn’t fulfilling,” he says. Pitseolak’s dissatisfaction led him to begin searching for a new way to work, and he hit on the idea of making miniature carvings of electric guitars in stone and bone. By using traditional Inuit materials to produce images of contemporary non-Indigenous objects (but still Indigenous in their use), Pitseolak realized he could maintain a connection with his heritage, even as he reflected the modern world in which he was living. This would come to express what he calls a “hybrid identity”, and he has worked in this idiom ever since.
Over time Pitseolak’s works have grown in both scale and complexity. One of his most elaborate works is a 2010 sculpture depicting a grader for moving gravel, wittily titled My Second Grader. With its long stone body and, in stone and bone, its numerous delicate attachments, including mirrors, headlights, exhaust pipes, movable wheels and ladders leading up to the cabin, it is a tour de force of sculptural collage. Pitseolak’s image is based on the graders that Kinngait’s crews use to create and maintain roads in the settlement, and he remembers as a teenager getting a ride in one from his father, who, in addition to his artmaking, worked as a heavy equipment operator for the community.
Although Pitseolak invariably draws on the whole range of traditional Indigenous materials, including stone, bone, sinew and other organic materials, his approach to these objects differs radically from traditional Inuit carving. Whereas most sculptors shape their works from a single block of stone, Pitseolak works as a collagist, painstakingly assembling his images from individually carved pieces. “I like the effect of contrasting different shades of green stone in a single work,” he says. His work is certainly not without precedent. As curator Norman Vorano has observed, Pitseolak’s approach, with its emphasis on carefully detailed objects, bears an affinity with the custom in the historic period of making miniature ivory and stone replicas of boats and rifles.2 Pitseolak’s approach can also be compared to the contemporary mixed-media work of Nick Sikkuark (1943-2013), the renowned Netsilingmiut sculptor, who similarly took pleasure
in the play of materials against one another. What sets Pitseolak’s work apart is the self-consciousness involved in so explicit a collagist enterprise. His assemblages revel in their madeness in a way that is historically unprecedented among Inuit artists. (I would argue as well that there is a relation between this aspect of his work and his plumbing vocation, which also involves piecing and fitting parts together.)
Pitseolak is probably best known for a series of carved motorcycles (or “choppers”, as he calls them). Pitseolak says he has lost count, but thinks he has done close to twenty versions after getting the initial idea from a TV show about custom bikes.
He was probably also inspired by a bike he remembers seeing in Kinngait when he was growing up: “There used to be a guy in town who had a purple Harley Davidson-type motorcycle. Street bikes are rare here.” Wonders of sculptural imagination and inventiveness, these witty forms are explicitly composite objects, not only because they defamiliarize an instantly recognizable object by displacing it, but also by often incorporating traditional Inuit motifs onto the surface of the machine, further mixing the old and new, the traditional and modern, a southern modernity and a northern one.
One of the most ornate choppers in the series is Sedna Chopper (2011), which takes its name from the powerful sea goddess of Inuit mythology, half woman and half sea-mammal, another familiar and important figure in Inuit art. In this modestly scaled work, Pitseolak has brilliantly imagined various parts of the bike as parts of Sedna’s body: the gas tank becomes Sedna’s midsection and the rear mudguard her tail fluke. Her head emerges where the headlamp would be between the two front forks, realized with twisting, ivory narwhal tusks. The full impact of this extraordinary work depends on its delicate placement at the thresholds between older and newer artmaking and between older and newer iconicities. Aroara, from 2012, is larger and more muscular in design. It has shortened handlebars, a wide back tire and at the front of its angular frame, a human skull. The work’s title is a play on words and sounds, referencing both the visual phenomenon of the aurora borealis and the audible roar of a souped-up chopper.
Pitseolak’s playful and punning titles are an integral part of his expression. As he recalls, the naming practice started with a carving from 2000 that drew on his work as a plumber: a miniature toilet that he could not resist calling Best Seat in the House. Pitseolak says he is not sure why he so often thinks in puns, apart from the obvious amusement of hearing and seeing something with simultaneous meanings. It is relevant that these are explorations of and interventions in English by someone whose mother tongue is Inuktitut. Christine Lalonde has suggested even that Pitseolak’s double entendres are a “comment on the long history of miscommunication that has occurred between Inuit and non-Inuit.”3 It is also possible to see them as another expression of the double identity through which Pitseolak understands himself and his place in his community, an identity whose duality is constant and uncannily comes in and out of view and in and out of hearing. Although Pitseolak usually titles his works after they are finished, he notes that sometimes the pun precedes the work, making the object an instantiation of the earlier conception. A work from 2010 takes this approach, depicting a small billiard cue next to a round ball with a pupil inlaid into its smooth surface and titled IQ.
Although Pitseolak’s sculptures seem to be either pure whimsy or matter-of-fact, many carvings carry deeply personal meanings from the artist’s past. A sculpture from 2005 of a sewing machine is based on his memory of an old-fashioned Singer machine that belonged to his grandmother, Aggeok Pitseolak (1906-1977). He recalls that visiting his grandparents as a child, he was always fascinated by the machine and curious about its parts and how they worked: “Making that piece helped me to go back to that time,” he says. “It’s a good memory. I was having fun.” An important work from 2009 evokes the memory of his grandfather. A simple, carved kitchen chair with a vintage camera hanging from its back rail, Peter Pitseolak’s Chair is at once a portrait of
His approach differs radically from traditional Inuit carving. Whereas most sculptors shape their works from a single block of stone, Pitseolak works as a collagist, painstakingly assembling his images from individually carved pieces.
Pitseolak’s relative and an homage paid by a younger artist to the elder artist in his family. As curator and artist Tania Willard has noted, the small scale and delicate detailing of these sculptures give them a strong note of intimacy; they are among his most moving and important works.5
Other works in Pitseolak’s oeuvre relate to traumatic memories. From the age of 10, Pitseolak was sexually abused by a white teacher in charge of an all-boys class in Kinngait’s day school.
The abuse, which lasted for two years, targeted a number of young Inuit students, Pitseolak among them. As part of his ordeal, Pitseolak was forced to wear women’s dresses and high heels. He summons this aspect of the trauma in Lady (2011), showing a women’s pump with a large flower on its top. Here the meaning remains only partially legible by the eye. Pitseolak has said that his ongoing assault scarred him for life, and he has gone back to his memories of the abuse in several works, including a powerful pair of etchings finished in 2010. (Pitseolak’s abuser was prosecuted and convicted in 2000, twenty years after his crimes.)
When asked to explain why he so often chooses to represent objects instead of people or animals, Pitseolak cites the inherent interest that objects have both for him and on their own.
“They have personality, and they speak volumes about history and cultures,” he notes. “They can become conversation pieces.” Although his sculptures frequently show commercially manufactured objects, they are themselves painstakingly handmade, a craftsman’s response to the mass-produced world. This handmade quality points to the tension in his work between the personal and the objective, and that handmadeness lies on a continuum with the quirky surrealism that expresses his uncanny take on the familiar. Big Baby, a 2012 stone sculpture of an oversized pacifier, looks like a Dada work from the last century. Even stranger is Musk Ox Pistol (2011), Pitseolak’s wonderfully improbable stone and horn sculpture of a thick-barrelled, life-size, Elizabethan gun with a muskox head carved into the handle’s butt end, a work in which the dissonances are both historical and cultural. Among his strangest juxtapositions, these sculptures challenge the still too familiar idea that Inuit art has one idiom rather than many and is self-identical rather than, as Pitseolak insists, restlessly “hybrid”.
As someone involved in showing and promoting Jamasee Pitseolak’s work for many years, I have been privileged to watch the development of his artistic vision and expression. In the seven years I have known him, this brilliant, determined artist has never ceased to surprise me with his imagination and invention, with his capacity to challenge himself in new ways and with his persistence and discipline in using his intelligence, humour and skill to explore a world of things as the repositories for his own thinking and feeling. Jamasee Padluq Pitseolak is still a young man. In a relatively short time, he has created an exceptionally thoughtful and exceptionally felt body of contemporary work. I am always eager to see what he does next.
(b. 1968 Kinngait)
Aroara 2012 Stone, caribou antler, ivory, dye and metal 31.8 x 55.9 x 19 cm
Jamasee Pitseolak Peter Pitseolak’s Chair 2009 Stone, string and caribou antler 12.7 x 8.3 x 8.3 cm
Jamasee Pitseolak Big Baby 2012 Stone 10.2 x 14 x 16.5 cm
IQ 2010 Stone 5.1 x 5.1 x 5.1 cm (eye); 30.5 x 2.5 x 2.5 cm (cue) All courtesy Marion Scott Gallery
Jamasee Pitseolak Scrub 2011 Stone
12.7 x 26.7 cm
Courtesy Canadian Guild of Crafts All images reproduced with permission of Dorset Fine Arts