Nick Sikkuark’s Message for Humanity
Throughout his long artistic career, Nattillingmiut artist Nick Sikkuark was an unconventional storyteller, creating highly imaginative, experimental works of art. Known in his community as much as a hunter and provider as an artist, he brought an intimacy to his creations that derived from his knowledge of the land and its materials, and from working these with his hands. Whatever medium he chose, his works of art contain an unexpected duality that is centred around themes including the environment, relations between humans and nonhumans, transformation and dream states of mind. The exhibition Nick Sikkuark: Humour and Horror brings together works that are expressions of individual imagination, deep cultural significance and a generous understanding of our shared human condition.
The concept and approach for this exhibition has been shaped by conversations with the artist, his family, his community and the many people who are connected to his art. In 2013, Sikkuark and I met at his home in Kugaaruk and, during our three nights of conversation, he shared his thoughts about life and art. This meeting became the spark that, after his death later that year, grew into a compilation of different perspectives and personal remembrances that adds depth to our understanding of this artist and his work.
One of these conversations (published in the exhibition catalogue) was with Mary Nirlungayuk, who knew the artist as a child and who became the local buyer at the Kugaaruk co-op. She describes how the artist would arrive to sell his works of art: “He would unwrap a carving and set it down on a table. He would have a big grin, and I would be curious to see what it was. I always wondered, ‘Where did he get those ideas? How did he decide to put those details here and there? Where did he find those bones?’ I would ask him those questions, but he would just grin in reply.”
Nirlungayuk's insight points to an essential aspect of Sikkuark’s art – it is at the same time familiar and yet like nothing ever seen. Recognizable elements of Inuit culture are there, but their configuration into unusual narratives is unique. Through his illustrated books, sculptures, drawings and paintings, Sikkuark gives hints rather than answers, because he wants the viewer to look, to marvel and to approach his work with open curiosity.
Underlying his rich imagery of Arctic landscapes, people and animals, shaman and spirits are seemingly opposing elements – the natural and supernatural, joy and sorrow, humour and horror – that somehow rest easily together. The artist’s distinctive themes run throughout the diverse media in which he worked over the course of his career, leaving a trail of teasing clues for us to follow. A fascinating part of his art is that one can discover the same creatures and story elements in all that he created over the years.
Sikkuark 's lifelong connection to his homeland – the vast expanse of the Kitikmeot region – had a profound impact on his artmaking, and he has an exceptional way of creating landscape in sculpture. More than a mere base for his figures, land is an active part of the story being told, often providing a twist. Miniature, perfectly formed bears walk through unusual scenery created by the artist by fusing two bones together. Even though the sculpture can be held in one hand, it communicates the echoey immensity of the land with a sense of mysterious calm and danger.
In his drawings, depictions of the land are even more expansive, with a high level of naturalism achieved through his knowledge of the tundra, the waterways and the sky, combined with an adept use of atmospheric depth and one-point perspective. These pictorial devices are imbedded within Western art history, where landscape as a genre itself is associated with land ownership and colonialism. Sikkuark commandeers this visual language to give an eerie plausibility to unusual actions and encounters happening in actual places. These events suggest other realities and realms, but they are not so much fantasy as something that Inuit know to occur on the land. They are not distorted images of reality, but rather represent an Indigenous cosmological understanding of land as a liminal space for both the earthly and the spiritual. He shows us the natural world inhabited with indwelling spiritual power and connected to all living things.
Human element is one of the key themes in his art. In addition to scenes showing Inuit ways of life, Sikkuark also had an exceptional talent for depicting people and was interested in states of mind, human emotions and expressions. This focus carries through from his early books, such as Faces (1973), and his carvings of hunters in motion, to his later pencil portraits and caricatures.
Facial features are an interesting intersection between his drawings and his carving, with the same intricate detail appearing in both. The expressions – sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle – of his drawn creatures gain a different life in three-dimensional form. As he said, “I like to make faces funny or ugly so people will look into the details and wonder what I have carved, to see and be puzzled by my carving … the scarier the better.” The vitality and exquisite detail of these sculptures beckon the viewer to come in close – as close as one dares when facing their gaping mouths and distorted eyes. They also reveal the artist's understanding of the intimate relations between humans and nonhumans. Boundaries between them slip or cease to exist altogether.
Transformation imagery, portraying a mutable existence, is a dominant concept throughout Sikkuark’s visual vocabulary. In his hands, oddly shaped carving materials – bones, antlers, ivory usually harvested from the tundra and waters – are turned into even odder creatures. Elders, such as Marie Anguti, immediately recognize that he is recalling a time when Inuit and animals shared language and could take on each other's body forms. Interactions with spirit helpers, alongside the ability to transform, became the special skill of shamans, who were able to take on the supernatural powers of spirit-animals.
His portrayals evoke the power of this ability, yet the expressions of pain or shock leave no doubt that transformation was not an easy experience. At first glance, evil figures seem repulsive, however, with touching human details the artist actually coaxes the viewer to respond to their agony with empathy. Often these critical moments of power are tied to uncomfortable or strenuous physical acts, such as teeth pulling and nasal flossing, ancient practices that fascinated Sikkuark.
Many of Sikkuark’s works have a dream or nightmare quality. Some of the sources for these works are Inuit oral histories that are rich with cautionary tales. One of his favourite stories was told to him as a child: “I love making snow worms because I love the story. It’s about a snake or reptile turning into a worm, and then a hunter comes along and kills it. My father told me the story when I was very young.”
Arctic snow or ice worms can live permanently in glaciers and icebound waters. In Inuit oral tradition, they are appreciated as symbols of rejuvenation, because they survive the cold season, and have unexpected powers of transformation, while also being feared as parasitic creatures. As he explains: “I turn myself into a worm using my shamanic powers just to enjoy myself. Now I am confused because everything is different, the land and sky.” Altogether, much of Sikkuark’s imagery refutes a Western logic, yet it is made convincing through a naturalism, where dream and reality come together as an “absolute reality” – what French Surrealist André Breton called a “surreality.”
A related and unexpected extension of this is his loose series of experimental drawings on coloured paper. In contrast to the meticulous details of his narrative drawings or portraits, these works appear unplanned, automatic, with no logical depth of field. Instead, fragmentary parts of humans, animals, land formations and cultural objects move in and out of focus as the viewer searches them out in the composition. In their flow and interaction, they may be related to transformation, but more likely they reflect the artist working within a stream-of-consciousness mindset.
Regardless of the medium he used, Sikkuark was through and through a quiet and bold experimenter, a meticulous and intuitive perfectionist and a sharp and gentle storyteller, who takes the viewer to places only he could imagine. Through his art, he entices us to look, to look again, and then to come back for an even closer look, and finally see his message revealed.
Nick Sikkuark: Humour and Horror is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from November 17, 2023 until March 24, 2024. For a full listing of lectures and related events, see the Events page. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.