The Sculp­ture of Arviat

Inuit Art Quarterly - - PORTFOLIO - BY NOR­MAN ZEPP

Long rec­og­nized for the dis­tinctly min­i­mal and aus­tere qual­i­ties of its stone carv­ing, Arviat sculp­ture is a per­fect mar­riage of for­mal sen­si­tiv­ity and un­re­lent­ing ma­te­rial.

The Ki­valliq (formerly Kee­watin) is a re­gion in Nu­navut noted for its spe­cial cir­cum­stances. Lo­cated on the west coast of Ta­si­u­jar­juaq (Hud­son Bay) some 200 kilo­me­tres north of Churchill, MB, is Arviat, to­day a com­mu­nity of some 2,300 peo­ple. For most res­i­dents, their tra­di­tional land and cul­ture is that of the Cari­bou Inuit, in par­tic­u­lar the Ihalmiut, formerly of the En­nadai Lake area. As early as the 1920s, Arc­tic ex­plorer Knud Rasmussen wrote of the par­tic­u­larly harsh and ten­u­ous life on the so-called Bar­ren Grounds. Ow­ing largely to the fluc­tu­a­tions in cari­bou mi­gra­tion, it was of­ten feast or famine.

It is tempt­ing to sug­gest that the par­tic­u­lar sever­ity of the lived ex­pe­ri­ences, prior to set­tle­ment life, of many Ki­valliq re­gion artists has some­how con­trib­uted to the aus­tere qual­ity of much Arviat sculp­ture cre­ated be­tween 1960 and the mid-1990s: an art form stripped of su­per­flu­ous de­tail. El­e­ments such as hands or fin­gers are re­al­ized as rudi­men­tary scratches or grooves and limbs are trun­cated. Faces, al­though at times ex­pres­sive, are ren­dered with sim­ple and gen­er­al­ized fea­tures. How­ever, cul­tural and ge­o­graphic spec­u­la­tion aside, I would sug­gest that it is the na­ture of the stone it­self that is most re­spon­si­ble for Arviat sculp­ture’s char­ac­ter­is­tics.

The lo­cal, grey stone used by most artists is hard, dif­fi­cult to carve and re­sists pol­ish­ing. This con­trib­utes to, and no doubt is largely re­spon­si­ble for, the harsh and at times rough qual­ity of the works from the re­gion. The hard­ness of this meta­mor­phic rock from the Kam­i­nak Lake quarry, some 130 kilo­me­ters from the ham­let, is due to con­cen­tra­tions of mica and chlo­rite, or mag­netite and cal­cite. This stone con­tains just enough of the softer talc to be called steatite. Its dense, ho­moge­nous na­ture (mas­sive in ge­o­log­i­cal terms) makes it suit­able for carv­ing com­pact forms, but does not al­low for long, nar­row ap­pendages or slen­der curvi­lin­ear forms. Nor does it en­able the carver to form fine nat­u­ral­is­tic de­tails, even if de­sired.

In con­trast to the flam­boy­ant ser­pen­ti­nite sculp­ture from Qik­iq­taaluk (Baffin Is­land) com­mu­ni­ties, such as Kin­ngait

(Cape Dorset), or the highly de­tailed, nat­u­ral­is­tic art crafted with North­ern Nu­navik steatite or the ex­pres­sion­is­tic whale­bone carv­ings from Ki­tik­meot (Cen­tral Arc­tic), much of the art from the Ki­valliq, with its strong em­pha­sis on form and line, ap­pears de­cid­edly min­i­mal. This is not a neg­a­tive ob­ser­va­tion, but rather it refers to the vi­tal­ity and im­me­di­acy of ex­pres­sion com­mon to sculp­ture re­duced to es­sen­tial form. The com­mu­nity of Arviat is home to sev­eral artists who have ren­dered their spare sculp­tures with a strength and pu­rity of vi­sion that re­veals them to be artists of the high­est or­der.

Rec­og­nized for hav­ing one of the largest per­cent­ages of artists of any north­ern com­mu­nity dur­ing the four decades in ques­tion, Arviat con­tin­ues to be known for its large num­ber of women carvers. I have cho­sen to fo­cus on the sculp­ture of Andy Miki (1918-1982), John Pang­nark (1920-1980), Lucy Tasseor Tutswee­tok (1934-2012), Mary Ayaq Anow­ta­lik, Luke Anow­ta­lik (1932-2006), El­iz­a­beth Nu­taraluk Au­latjut (1914-1998) and

Eva Talooki Alik­tiluk (1927-1994), amongst many no­ta­bles re­sid­ing in this cre­ative com­mu­nity.1 These artists gen­er­ally favoured the sub­jects com­mon to the art of this re­gion—mother and child, multi-headed fig­ures and sin­gle fig­ures of peo­ple and an­i­mals— done in a semi-rep­re­sen­ta­tional, non-nar­ra­tive man­ner. This in­tu­itive pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the res­o­lu­tion of for­mal prob­lems by Arviat artists has re­sulted in works that are sur­pris­ingly un­like those which we have come to as­so­ciate with the Inuit sculp­ture of pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, char­ac­ter­ized by con­vinc­ing il­lus­tra­tions of sto­ries and leg­ends or de­tailed de­pic­tions of tra­di­tional life and nat­u­ral­is­tic ren­der­ings of fauna.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of Andy Miki was sim­i­lar to many of his peers. Born near the Kazan River, Miki lived in the En­nadai Lake area trad­ing into Padlei. In 1959 Miki was re­lo­cated to Arviat and then to Kangiqlini­q (Rankin In­let) be­fore set­tling in Tiki­rar­juaq (Whale Cove). Fa­cil­i­tated by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and ne­ces­si­tated by wide­spread star­va­tion, many in­land Inuit, and al­most all Cari­bou Inuit, moved to the coastal com­mu­ni­ties of Kangiqlini­q, Tiki­rar­juaq and Arviat dur­ing this pe­riod. To­day Miki’s sculp­tures are ap­pre­ci­ated for their sub­tle form, cou­pled with a strong lin­ear sense; of­ten the eye is led to the outer edges where the form is out­lined, as though drawn by a sen­si­tive line.

Suc­cess­ful artists must be given credit for know­ing not only the lim­i­ta­tions of the medium, but of them­selves. Many Arviat artists ac­knowl­edged limited carv­ing skill when it came to any at­tempt at re­al­ism, and so were able to take ad­van­tage of the un­for­giv­ing na­ture of the avail­able ma­te­rial. In Miki’s case, his es­chewal of the hu­man sub­ject averted the need for the ar­tic­u­la­tion of de­mand­ing el­e­ments such as hands or faces. Rather, his oeu­vre is vir­tu­ally en­tirely com­posed of an­i­mal forms ren­dered with a min­i­mum of de­tail or iden­ti­fy­ing fea­tures. Only oc­ca­sion­ally do we find longish ears to sig­nify the ob­ject as a hare or antlers to des­ig­nate a cari­bou. Nev­er­the­less, for an artist such as Miki, be they de­pic­tions of a dog, bear or bird, these of­ten am­bigu­ous images re­mained mean­ing­ful to him as evo­ca­tions of such.

Sim­i­larly, of the dozens of works by Pang­nark that I have seen, the most overt in­di­ca­tions of sub­ject mat­ter are an­gu­lar yet flow­ing ap­pendages and sim­pli­fied vis­ages. Hu­man­ness is of­ten in­di­cated merely by a small, finely in­cised face (al­ways on an up­ward fac­ing plane) and two slight notches on the sides to de­note arms; Pang­nark seemed to know in­stinc­tively that an oth­er­wise un­dif­fer­en­ti­ated mass needs pre­cisely that relief.

In­ter­views make it clear that other Inuit artists saw lit­tle rel­e­vance or worth in these sim­ple ren­der­ings, de­scrib­ing them as child­like or hu­mor­ous at best.2 This is a re­flec­tion of the ten­dency of most peo­ple any­where to favour de­tailed and nat­u­ral­is­tic ef­forts, in­dica­tive of tech­ni­cal pro­fi­ciency. In­deed, even within an over­all Ki­valliq aes­thetic, Miki and Pang­nark’s art stands out for its predilec­tion to ab­strac­tion and styl­iza­tion. It should not be sur­pris­ing, there­fore, that the great­est ap­pre­ci­a­tion for their art is found with an au­di­ence such as con­nois­seur, art his­to­rian and critic Ge­orge Swin­ton, con­di­tioned to re­spond to and ap­pre­ci­ate mod­ern Euro­pean sculp­tors like Con­stantin Brân­cus,i or Henry Moore. Swin­ton wrote of Pang­nark:

He was doubtlessl­y the Brân­cus,i of the North, with a rare feel­ing for ab­strac­tion and for the sheer beauty of curved and hard-edged shapes. He couldn’t put any of these thoughts into words, but he did what counts most: he made them into sculp­tures.3

I would ar­gue that Swin­ton’s words can be ap­plied, in vary­ing de­grees, to sev­eral Ki­valliq artists. I also sug­gest that with­out such an aware­ness and recog­ni­tion of the Mod­ernist aes­thetic, the art of Miki and many of his peers would have re­mained largely un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated, if not un­known.

With few ex­cep­tions most Arviat artists avoided al­ter­ing the stone’s es­sen­tial shape.4 Lucy Tasseor Tutswee­tok was a master at re­tain­ing her stone’s orig­i­nal mass and pro­file, al­low­ing it in­stead to im­ply the body of the prin­ci­ple fig­ure, usu­ally a woman. She never carved a com­plete fig­ure, choos­ing rather to carve out heads or rudi­men­tary ap­pendages along the outer edges or to take ad­van­tage of nat­u­rally-oc­cur­ring promi­nences. One of the best ex­am­ples of this “truth to ma­te­ri­als” is found in a large fam­i­ly­group carv­ing wherein Tutswee­tok re­tained the hole that re­sulted while quarry drilling.

I would also sug­gest that the heads and faces in many of works are not there solely to rep­re­sent spe­cific peo­ple or fam­ily mem­bers, but rather are carved for their own sakes, as for­mal el­e­ments. When I asked Tutswee­tok if the heads pop­u­lat­ing a large piece re­ferred to her fam­ily, she replied, “Per­haps, but maybe your fam­ily!” Com­ment­ing on a photo of a piece by Pang­nark, with its slight in­di­ca­tion of sub­ject, Tutswee­tok replied, “I think that he was prob­a­bly like my­self, try­ing to rep­re­sent some­thing in a way, but I don’t re­ally copy. I don’t re­ally make it hu­man but in some sort of ab­stract way. He was prob­a­bly the same.” As fur­ther ev­i­dence of an aes­thetic im­pulse, Tutswee­tok went on to say, “It’s kind of nice to have all those faces.”5

For the most part, the art of this pe­riod was cre­ated within the con­text of the group. The re­sult was a dom­i­nant com­mu­nity aes­thetic that most adopted or at least adapted to. Sim­ply stated, the artists were well aware of the sculp­ture be­ing pro­duced by oth­ers around them. In­deed, many would work along­side each other, im­part­ing a strong so­cial el­e­ment to the daily ex­er­cise of art­mak­ing. Some, like Tutswee­tok, Pang­nark and Miki, were known to of­ten carve side-by-side. Many fam­i­lies had two or three artists who of­ten worked so closely that at­tri­bu­tion is at times dif­fi­cult, such as the sculp­tures of Mary Ayaq Anow­ta­lik and her hus­band, Luke Anow­ta­lik, or Luke and Joy Kilu­vi­gyuak Hal­lauk (1931-1993 and 1940-2000 re­spec­tively).

In­dica­tive of the high re­gard for the ma­ter­nal bond, Mary Ayaq’s sculp­ture em­pha­sizes the cen­tral­ity of women and moth­ers in Inuit life through the de­pic­tion of a large fe­male fig­ure (iden­ti­fied as such by her parka, the amauti) en­com­passed by heads and smaller fig­ures.6 Ayaq’s hus­band, Luke Anow­ta­lik, also used a prin­ci­ple fig­ure to de­pict the cen­tral­ity of the main im­age and the in­ter­de­pen­dence of the var­i­ous other el­e­ments chis­elled into the stone in low relief. In sev­eral of his larger works, the all-im­por­tant cari­bou plays the cen­tral role; its broad mass is sur­rounded by and sup­ports hu­man fig­ures and heads, per­son­i­fy­ing the sup­port­ive and nur­tur­ing essence of this no­ble crea­ture. Anow­ta­lik was also renowned for his skill as a carver of antler and his in­cor­po­ra­tion of the ma­te­rial into some of his pieces serves to tan­gi­bly ground his cre­ations whilst an­i­mat­ing them both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively.

El­iz­a­beth Nu­taraluk Au­latjut’s pieces have a sense of rough im­me­di­acy, rem­i­nis­cent of John Kavik (1897-1993), and an al­most gaunt-like in­ten­sity, trig­ger­ing as­so­ci­a­tions with the frost-shat­tered rocks that char­ac­ter­ize the lo­cal to­pog­ra­phy. Like many other artists of the re­gion, Au­latjut lim­its the de­gree to which she im­poses her sculp­tural will by fol­low­ing the nat­u­ral shape of the stone, uti­liz­ing the outer ridges to de­pict her patented braided hair, and promi­nences to de­pict a child as a gen­tly rounded form emerg­ing from the mass of the mother, while re­main­ing in­te­grated for­mally into the whole.

The spread of the fur trade through the nine­teenth cen­tury into the Cana­dian North­west brought with it the tra­di­tion of in­cor­po­rat­ing bead­work into Inuit cloth­ing de­sign. The Inuit of south­ern Ki­valliq were soon pro­duc­ing won­der­fully dec­o­rated parkas. One of the first artists to re­flect this prac­tice in her art was Su­san Oot­nooyuk (1918-1977), who would then in­flu­ence her niece, Eva Talooki Alik­tiluk. Alik­tiluk be­came renowned for her

Most Arviat artists avoided al­ter­ing the stone’s es­sen­tial shape. Lucy Tasseor Tutswee­tok was a master at re­tain­ing her stone’s orig­i­nal mass and pro­file, al­low­ing it in­stead to im­ply the body of the prin­ci­ple fig­ure, usu­ally a woman.

Al­though ge­o­graphic, cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances play a role [...] I have ob­served that the ma­te­rial is such a fun­da­men­tal de­ter­mi­nant as to the kind of art pro­duced that it even trumps the de­mands of the mar­ket.

cre­ative jux­ta­po­si­tion of brightly coloured bead­work and re­served, grey stone, drap­ing strands of beads over the fig­ure or sewing them into lit­tle hide and felt parkas. Though small, with their un­yield­ing stone bod­ies, such pieces do not eas­ily func­tion as dolls. The con­trast of the un­der­ly­ing, stern stone fig­ure with the pre­cious­ness im­parted by the dec­o­ra­tive beads re­sults in a vis­ually pleas­ing form. Alik­tiluk’s sig­na­ture bead­ing has been echoed by sev­eral other Arviat artists, in­clud­ing by her daugh­terin-law Mary Tutswuitok.

Al­though ge­o­graphic, cul­tural and his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances play a role in the na­ture of the art pro­duced, I have found in com­mu­nity af­ter com­mu­nity, whether stone, bone, antler or ivory, an ex­tra­or­di­nary and seem­ingly in­nate aware­ness and un­der­stand­ing of the pos­si­bil­i­ties—and the lim­i­ta­tions—in­her­ent in the medium. I have ob­served that the ma­te­rial is such a fun­da­men­tal de­ter­mi­nant as to the kind of art pro­duced that it even trumps the de­mands of the mar­ket. Dur­ing the six­ties, the money re­ceived by south­ern Ki­valliq artists for their sculp­ture was less, rel­a­tive to that re­ceived by artists in some other com­mu­ni­ties. Nev­er­the­less, low prices and a lack of mar­ket in­duced lit­tle change in the fun­da­men­tal na­ture of the art. If there was no mar­ket for their par­tic­u­lar ex­pres­sion, the artists would cease carv­ing rather than change. Cer­tainly, for the for­ma­tive pe­riod of Inuit art cre­ated be­tween 1948-c.1995, what I now con­sider to be the “Clas­sic Pe­riod”, once a com­mu­nity aes­thetic was in place it would re­main largely as it was.

Op­po­site: El­iz­a­beth Nu­taraluk Au­latjut (1914-1998 Arviat) Un­ti­tled (man giv­ing fish to woman) c. 1970-74 Stone 18.4 x 24.1 x 7.6 cm Col­lec­tion of Stephanie Comer and Rob Craigie Photo: ex­panding­i­nuit.com

Mary Ayaq Anow­ta­lik (b. 1938 Arviat) Mother and Chil­dren c. 2000 Stone 29.5 x 27 x 21 cm Univer­sity of Saskatchew­an Col­lec­tion, Saska­toon Be­low: Luke Anow­ta­lik (1932-2006 Arviat) Thoughts of Cari­bou Stone and antler 40 x 36 x 37 cm Pri­vate...

Eva Talooki Alik­tiluk (1927-1994 Arviat) Woman c. 1980 Stone, glass beads and thread 20 x 11.5 x 11 cm Cour­tesy Walker’s Auc­tions, Ot­tawa Photo Di­eter Hes­sel Op­po­site: Lucy Tasseor Tutswee­tok (1934-2012 Arviat) Fam­ily Group 1988 Stone 44 x 32 x 19 cm...

John Pang­nark (1920-1980 Arviat) Fig­ure c. 1975 Stone 11.4 x 10.4 x 7 cm Cour­tesy Don­ald El­lis Gallery, New York, NY, and Van­cou­ver, BC

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