Inuit Art Quarterly
Billy Gauthier: Saunituinnaulungitotluni | Beyond Bone
The Big Land speaks through sculptor
Billy Gauthier’s first mid-career retrospective, Saunituinnaulungitotluni | Beyond Bone, imploring its audience to listen to the embodied, generational knowledge of the Indigenous cultures of Nunatsiavut and their stewardship of the region’s natural resources. Throughout the exhibition the lived experiences of Nunatsiavummiut are brought into conversation with Gauthier’s work, which spans topics of Inuit creation stories to impacts of climate change on food security.
Curator Jessica Winters takes great care in amplifying Gauthier’s voice, contextualizing his work largely through his activism and positioning it as an ongoing and multifaceted act of resistance against colonial impertinence and the continued exploitation of resources in the region. Moving between Pinngutik (to create), Pattangaititsik (to protect), Misigmik (perception) and IkKaik (to remember something forgotten), Saunituinnaulungitotluni is an impressive collection of work that illustrates the timeless relationship between Inuit culture, the land, ice and a natural energy that connects them. A broad range of raw materials—including labradorite, serpentinite, sinew, wooly mammoth ivory, grouse feathers, baleen, bone and antler— are utilized by Gauthier to highlight this interconnectedness.
Works like the masterfully carved
Swimming Loons (2010) bring together muskox horn and moose antler to depict two loons’ underwater play, anchored in serpentinite and labradorite. With its playful curves and iconic feather design, the work is a dynamic tribute to the late Inuit graphic artist Kenojuak Ashevak CC, RCA (1927–2013). The piece captures the delicate movement and expressive glow so often displayed in her work, and signals Gauthier’s admiration for those artists who have come before and his deep respect for the knowledge they have passed down to younger generations.
Gauthier’s aesthetic, however, remains decidedly contemporary—an approach that has captured the attention of many young collectors and curators. Take, for example
Traditional Springtime Seal Hunt (2019) where an undeniably self-assured hunter, rendered in antler, stands upon a surfboard-like ice floe. Below it sits his catch, a stone seal tethered by the hunter’s sinew line. It’s clear that Gauthier wants his audience to understand the importance of art for the preservation of cultural histories, but more crucially the continuation of cultural existence and life on the land.
The exhibition also takes care to illustrate aspects of Gauthier’s creative approach, drawing a relationship between process, politics and environmental stewardship. Gauthier’s voice greets visitors upon entering the exhibition via multiple recorded interviews of the artist at work in his North West River, NL, studio. Echoing throughout the space, Gauthier speaks thoughtfully about his practice between the mesmerizing buzz of power tools emanating from the background. In one video, the artist’s hands continuously turn a small, work-in-progress figure, revealing the intimate nature of his work as each pass with the saw deepens the character of the
piece. In yet another, Gauthier recites a poem titled Protectors of the North, calling out “I need this snow— the snow needs me.”
These videos reveal that Gauthier purposefully attends to the desires of his materials as each layer reveals new characteristics existing naturally in stone, antler or bone. The documenting of this conscientious practice elevates Gauthier’s work to a sacred appreciation for the environment from which Inuit and the culture of Nunatsiavut were born. For Gauthier, one does not exist without the other; Gauthier’s ar tistry is innate to his knowledge of and connection with his homeland and community.