The Nomadic and the Monstrous: The Stories of Victoria Mamnguqsualuk
The artist’s lines are sure. The characters and their actions are fixed in her mind. There is no second guessing. It is a story she knows well. —
With a body of work that continues to speak to contemporary issues of displacement, scarcity and community, this Feature explores the breadth of Mamnguqsualuk’s depictions of the legendary Inuit wanderer Kiviuq as well as scenes of horrific and humorous beasts. Taken together, these epic narratives, spread across drawings, prints and wall hangings, offer powerful insights into the interdependencies of a globalized world.
Since the mid-1960s, this Qamani’tuaq artist made the tale of Kiviuq, the eternal nomad of Inuit legend, a recurring theme in her expansive body of work, alongside a host of other beasts and spirits from traditional stories who both consume and are consumed. From choreographed drawings and stonecut prints to intricate wall hangings, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk’s (1930–2016) humorous, horrific and narrative works continue to resonate with contemporary issues of migration, community, scarcity and interdependence.
“Have you seen Kiviok? You must have met him on your travels,” master storyteller Kuvdluitsoq from Ilivileq asked anthropologist Knud Rasmussen in the early 1920s. “Kiviok is an Inuk, a man like ourselves,” he continued, “but a man with many lives.” Speaking from the other side of a century, or nearly so, I can tell you: I have seen Kiviuq.¹ He has made it all the way here.
The wandering shaman of Inuit legend, known from Greenland to Alaska (and perhaps beyond), is said to have disappeared, toward the end of his odyssey, south into “the land of the white man.” Concluding his rendition of the Kiviuq story cycle, Kuvdluitsoq told Rasmussen, who was on a mission recording local legends,
“We know no more to tell about him.” Only that before his last life is over, he will return home.
I learned the epic of Kiviuq from the artwork of Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (1930–2016). Appearing regularly in the Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), NU, print series from its inception and producing art well into her 80s, Mamnguqsualuk vividly and vigorously recounted chapters from the hero’s journey in coloured pencil, ink and textile. These efforts were presented beside vignettes from other traditional stories told to her by her grandmother when she was young, as well as experiences from life on the land. Her tellings—boldly coloured, populous and fizzing with action—characteristically depict scenes of horror, humour and tenderness, often at once. It seems fitting that her portrayals of bravery read almost like superhero comics, with long narrative sequences transpiring together on the page.
I recognize the same joy in her work that I have felt from drawing: the way fantasy flows quickly and easily from the pencil, as if a nerve runs straight from our brain through our fingers and out the graphite tip. The monsters that live on the sheet are the fears that live in our minds; the heroes represent our hopes. It is no surprise to me why superheroes—whether they fly or travel by kayak, as Mamnguqsualuk’s do—have been the subject, across time, of so much ink.
A dawning interest in the immense and to date overlooked output of the Sanavik Cooperative has recently begun to summon her work from its rest in vaults and collections. A selection of Mamnguqsualuks were featured at SITE Santa Fe’s SITElines 2018: Casa tomada biennial and a wall hanging is currently on display in the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Nivinngajuliaat from Baker Lake exhibition. The themes of her narrative drawings—migration, scarcity and community—are contemporary in any era. But they strike with special relevance at this moment. As do the stories of the great Inuk traveller, also currently enjoying broader visibility with the Iqaluit-based Qaggiavuut!’s Qaggiq Collective, touring its stage production Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic again in 2019. As the work of the prolific graphic artist and textile-maker reemerges, the legend of Kiviuq continues its voyage once again.
A daughter of one of Qamani’tuaq’s most renowned artists Jessie Oonark, OC, RCA (1906–1985), Mamnguqsualuk was born near Garry Lake in what was then the Northwest Territories (now Nunavut).
She was raised by her paternal grandparents and lived on the land until moving into the Qamani’tuaq settlement with her husband and children in 1963. She became involved in its fledgling art program: first, by carving stone, then, by sewing textiles and drawing.
According to Keeveeok, Awake! (1986), the only monographic study of Mamnguqsualuk’s work, she was encouraged by Craft Officer Jack Butler to make drawings from the “old stories” she had heard. Such depictions were once advised against, both by Christian missionaries hostile to traditional beliefs and by some within the community, wary of stirring spirits. On the verso of one drawing, the artist wrote: “It is said that if you draw on the ice window of the igloo, the image that you have drawn may come to life and pursue you in the night. As a result, people were never to touch the ice window at night.” An untitled, undated work in graphite and coloured pencil depicts a mother defending her child, his mark-making implement still in hand, from the attack of a fanged and clawed monster with a belly full of eaten heads. Such “old stories” fed Mamnguqsualuk creatively, and when the first edition of Qamani’tuaq prints were released in 1970, eight of her drawings had been chosen, including three that told the stories of Kiviuq.
The legend of the wandering Inuk is ancient; it predates European contact in the Arctic. In 2004 researcher Kira Van Deusen followed in Rasmussen’s footsteps, listening to elders across Nunavut tell the Kiviuq stories familiar in their region. “Some Inuit believe the great hero is still alive,” she writes. “They say he will die only when the world ends.” Others say Kiviuq is just a bedtime story for children.
Candice Hopkins, co-curator of SITElines 2018, says she understands him as a character that “people can draw upon in times of social tension.” She mentions a later adaptation, published in a Cold War–era comic book, where Kiviuq harpoons a Soviet satellite from the sky, so it won’t fall onto the settlement of Qamani’tuaq. “He’s one of those figures who can be reinvented depending on the needs of a given time,” she says.
In many of the tellings I have encountered, the epic begins like this: The grandmother of an orphan who is bullied by everyone, except Kiviuq, decides to take revenge against the people who mistreated him. (In other versions, Kiviuq himself is the orphan boy.) The grandmother transforms the child into a seal and teaches him to hold his breath and to swim. The grandmother tells the orphan to go into the water and appear by the shore, enticing the bullies into their kayaks, then to go into deeper water, careful not to get struck by their harpoons. Once the orphan lures the bullies away from land, the grandmother raises up a violent storm, which capsizes the hunters’ kayaks and causes them all to drown, except Kiviuq, who washes ashore and is now lost, a long way from camp. Mamnguqsualuk revisits the tale in multiple works. For example, in the stonecut and stencil print The Boy and His Grandmother Tricks the Mean People (1980), the storm is composed like a swirling gyre, sucking characters into an icy blue chop. In another similarly titled print, a bully’s boat is snapped in two, as the seal boy makes his escape. The image of Kiviuq fleeing in his kayak—though it might allude to any number of installments in the cycle—appears frequently across the artist’s drawings, prints and wall hangings.
An episode told sometimes immediately following “The Orphan” chapter is one that seems to have struck Mamnguqsualuk particularly, and she returned to the story of the “Big Bee” often. An undated graphite and coloured pencil work viewed from the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) print and drawing archive is titled simply Qiviuq (n.d.). It presents the quintessential Kiviuq tale, typical in tone and structure to many others: on the way home, he encounters a threat— natural or supernatural—but by his cunning, or sometimes by magic, he narrowly escapes to continue his journey. Here we also experience the idiosyncrasies that arise from oral tradition transmitted graphically and frozen by the page. The two curators, a press officer and I worked to suss out the narrative: “What is he doing?” “What’s in her hand?” “Are those heads?” “He must be next.” But the artist’s lines are sure. The characters and their actions are fixed in her mind. There is no second guessing. It is a story she knows well.
After drifting in his kayak for some time, Kiviuq lands in a foreign place and finds a house near the shore. It is the home of the bee woman, who has assumed the form of a man-eating troll. He climbs on top of the lodging to peer down through a hole in the roof and finds the sorceress inside tanning human hide. He spits down through the opening to catch her attention. She looks up to examine the leaky roof, but her eyelids are so heavy they fall in the way. She takes her ulu (woman’s knife) and slices off her own eyelids. Startled, Kiviuq falls to the ground and lies there unconscious. She brings him inside. When he comes to, warming by the fire, the head of a previous victim, set among a row of severed heads nearby, speaks. It says: “Keeveeok, awake! And flee to save your own life.” Kiviuq heeds the warning and runs, barely escaping the bee woman’s ulu, which she throws at him as he takes off again in his kayak. In some accounts, when her ulu hits the water, the very first coastal ice is formed, though Mamnguqsualuk generally skips this detail. (Some speculate the frozen coast was less critical for those living inland and who did not depend on hunting sea mammals).
The same story is presented in Qaggiavuut!’s Kiviuq Returns, as told by many elders. In this chapter, told by Madeline Ivalu of Iglulik, NU, once Kiviuq is alerted by the talking skull, he summons his guiding spirit nanuq (polar bear), who rescues him from the bee woman. “We collected stories from many Inuit elders across Nunavut,” says Artistic Director Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, “sometimes they told completely different stories, sometimes they told the exact same story. It was amazing. Our stories are that strong, just a scratch beneath the skin and they are all there.” Though Mamnguqsualuk’s work did not have direct influence on the stage play, Williamson Bathory explains that it is another indication how strong the imagery of the stories are. “Kiviuq is compelling because he is a mere human, who, by sheer willpower to travel, becomes supernatural. He was so curious, so open, so charismatic, that people in all Inuit regions passed these stories down over hundreds, even thousands of years.”
Aside from her depictions of Kiviuq, another drawing at the AGO steals my attention and consumes it. Mamnguqsualuk’s Giant Insect (c. 1980) hung in the gallery from fall 2017 to early 2018 during an exhibition exploring the bestiary of Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. It shows a ten-legged, beetle-like critter, bigger than a polar bear, with a head like that of a muskox. It has trapped a man in its jaws. Like an abyss or a blackhole, the characters gathered round are pulled toward its maw. Whether by hunters, bears, wolves, snakes, spirits or cannibals, the acts of eating and being eaten form a motif across Mamnguqsualuk’s art. Women Eating Lice (1979) features a chimera-like creature crouched behind the titular women, also ready to feast. Men Harpooning Fish (n.d.) has the group gobbling their
How people move and why they move, who belongs, who doesn’t and who is making that distinction? These questions were a very important part of Mamnguqsualuk’s work. For Inuit, migration was a way of life. —
catch straight from the water. Battling with the Sea Monsters (1988) shows an Inuk swallowed by a sea serpent. AGO Curator of Indigenous Art Wanda Nanibush reminds me that through the 1940s and 1950s, Inuit of the Kivalliq Region, where Mamnguqsualuk lived, experienced periods of terrible famine. It was illness and food scarcity that eventually brought her family to move permanently into the Qamani’tuaq settlement.
Hopkins also recognizes the theme. She views the acts not simply as ingestion, but instances of a greater sense of exchange prevalent throughout Mamnguqsualuk’s creation. Things eat things. Things transform into different things. Things exist inside other things. Hopkins mentions the print Flesh Eating Monster (1983), which was included in the Santa Fe biennial. It depicts a giant bird wearing an amauti (woman’s parka), rising from behind a bear that has a human face. Its belly is open and full of meat—fish, people and what might be caribou. On the bear’s outstretched tongue, stands a man, brandishing a weapon. He appears tiny. Another man strikes at the monster. Another is carried away by a wolf. Between the worlds of the human, the animal and the spirit, “there’s always this sense of interrelationship,” Hopkins says. This sense can be seen in additional works in SITElines, like the print Snake Man (1982), where within the contours of the serpent’s long body emerge human faces, legs and arms. Here, snake and man are not enemies but are part of the same. The connections construct an ecology. Every actor has their part to play, not merely for the function of a narrative, but also in a broader understanding of life and survival. One being depends on another. Existence is dynamic. Accordingly, Hopkins refers to Mamnguqsualuk’s drawings and wall hangings as “choreographies.” They are fantastically large and intricately coordinated movements.
It is for such robust examples of interdependence that Hopkins sought to bring forward Mamnguqsualuk’s art today, in some cases close to a half-century after its production. The work has a lot to tell contemporary audiences—perhaps more than ever—as notions of community grow larger and more global. Migration was an underlying theme last year at SITElines, she says. “How people move and why they move, who belongs, who doesn’t and who is making that distinction?” These questions were “a very important part of Victoria’s work,” Hopkins says. “For Inuit, migration was a way of life.” Following the land for resources, experiencing scarcity, relocating, learning new ways to survive, such movement figured large in Mamnguqsualuk’s time and was reflected in her work. It is no wonder she made a muse of the eternal migrant. In this moment of mass human migration, as people move from outside and within Europe, the Americas and the Middle East and tensions surrounding borders increase, her stories do not feel 1000 years old or even 50 years old. They feel emergent.
I can tell you that I have seen Kiviuq. He has made it here.
And I do not anticipate that his travels are yet over.
1 The contemporary spelling Kiviuq is used here. However, the various spellings recorded in publications, titles and archival documents are preserved.
PREVIOUS SPREAD Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (1930–2016 Qamani’tuaq)The Boy and His Grandmother Tricks the Mean People1980Printmaker: Magdalene Ukpatiku (1931–1999) Stonecut63.5 × 94.5 cm GOVERNMENT OF NUNAVUT FINE ART COLLECTION COURTESY WINNIPEGART GALLERYBELOW Qiviuq n.d.Coloured pencil and graphite59 × 74 cmCOURTESY ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO
RIGHT Bird Woman1977Coloured pencil and graphite50.8 × 66 cm COLLECTION WINNIPEG ART GALLERY
Keeveeok Awake! Before 1971 Coloured pencil and graphite55.8 × 76 cm COLLECTION WINNIPEG ART GALLERY
Giant Insect c. 1980Coloured pencil and graphite58.9 × 80 cmART GALLERY OF ONTARIO Conversing with the Snake Spirit1987Printmaker: Magdalene Ukpatiku (1931–1999)Stonecut and stencil 66 × 94.5 cm GOVERNMENT OF NUNAVUT FINE ART COLLECTION COURTESY WINNIPEGART GALLERYLEFTRIGHT