The Ob­ject Truth: Ja­masee Pit­se­o­lak’s World of Stone

Inuit Art Quarterly - - CON­TENTS - Robert Kar­dosh

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.

Col­lec­tion BMO Fi­nan­cial Group Photo Tony Hafken­scheid

Ja­masee Pit­se­o­lak

(b. 1968 Kin­ngait)

Aroara 2012 Stone, cari­bou antler, ivory, dye and me­tal 31.8 x 55.9 x 19 cm

Left:

Ja­masee Pit­se­o­lak Pe­ter Pit­se­o­lak’s Chair 2009 Stone, string and cari­bou antler 12.7 x 8.3 x 8.3 cm

Op­po­site:

Ja­masee Pit­se­o­lak Big Baby 2012 Stone 10.2 x 14 x 16.5 cm

Ja­masee Pit­se­o­lak

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

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