Views of the World
Inuit art is as full of fascinating transformations, beautiful and frightening legends, and otherworldly creatures, as it is of practical and peaceful depictions of everyday life. For us Inuit, every drawing and print is an expression of how we view the worlds around us, both hidden and in plain sight. Drawings are an invaluable extension of our rich storytelling tradition. In the four works featured here, one can dive in a little deeper to understand the story behind each work.
Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, daughter of renowned artist Jessie Oonark, is well known for her drawings and prints. In her 1969 composition Qiviuq Away! say the Heads, a man lies unconscious in the centre. If not for the peculiar presence of five disembodied heads shouting a warning, it would seem the man is just lying peacefully asleep. A large woman known as Iguptarguaq (big bee or giant bee) is at the entrance of the dwelling, brandishing an ulu. This ulu is not for skinning seals or slicing up maktaaq (Muktuk), the traditional meal of frozen skin and blubber. Instead, Iguptarguaq’s belly is hungry for human flesh. The heads, with their almost comically serene expressions, warn the man, our beloved hero Kiviuq of Inuit legend, “You are going to end up like me if you don’t get away! Get out! Get out!”
According to the story that has been passed down through millenia, Kiviuq fainted at the sight of human hands boiling in a pot when he first approached Iguptarguaq’s tent. He could not move or speak, for he was terribly frightened. Iguptarjuaq then helped Kiviuq onto her sleeping platform and left to get more firewood, as she intended to kill him, and then cook and eat him. Thanks to the fervent warnings from the decapitated souls, Kiviuq managed to keep his wits about him – and his head – by quickly running out of the tent and escaping in his qajaq (kayak).
In a more tender scene, etched in a soft red hue, the viewer is invited to peer down at a family settling in to go to sleep. The father and mother are on the right, while their many children – and perhaps a grandparent – are squished together to the left. This is a peaceful and intimate moment not unfamiliar to many Inuit, both past and present. In Inuktitut, we have a specific word for sharing a bed: tutik. Lying together enables us to keep warm and, at times, it is a matter of practicality, as in a tent, iglu or cabin there is often not enough space to sleep separately. In Family Bundle, artist Kunugusiq Nuvaqirq perfectly captures the sweet nostalgia and warmth of sleeping “side by side by side” at camp or out on the land.
A native of the Back River region in the Northwest Territories, Ruth Qaulluaryuk moved to Baker Lake in the early 1970s. Her delightful black-and-white depiction of the Qamanirjuaq caribou herd in her 1975 print Hundreds and Hundreds, Herds of Caribou is a wonderful homage to times of plenty. As there are no hunters to be seen and the tuktuit (caribou) appear to be peacefully grazing and trotting along, this work could be an image of the arrival of the first herd.
The tradition among Inuit hunters is to let the leaders pass, a tradition that sometimes demands great restraint and patience, especially when hungry. Hunters avoided shooting caribou leaders to ensure the continued migration of the tuktuit throughout the fall hunting season. thus ensuring a successful future harvest. The artist, who had experienced hardship when scarcity of food led to starvation, sickness and death, shows us the beauty of abundance and the spectacular arrival of the animals that sustain the Inuit.
Jessie Oonark’s drawing Untitled (Two Women and Man with Pails and Scoop) dates to the same period as her daughter’s drawing of Kiviuq and the bee. Oonark’s ethereal use of colour and her ability to transfer spiritual potency to the page has few comparisons. The artist’s portrayals of Inuit life, both practical and magical, are invaluable gifts from, and portals into, the ancient world. In this work, three figures appear peacefully immersed in the task at hand, dreamily levitating in an aqua mist as they scoop fresh water into their buckets. The two women are wearing elaborate hooded amautiit (parkas) with long tails, or akuq, traditionally worn by Inuit women. In a more simple garment, the man gazes serenely towards the viewer. In this work, Oonark captures the simple but important task of fetching water for washing, cooking and drinking, in an almost supernatural way. Printed in turquoise, it is as though the figures are materializing from the water itself.
The various images explored here all point to a sensibility that is undeniably Inuk. Although wonderfully diverse in their expression, each piece contains a remarkable narrative within a single frame. Each work brilliantly expresses the richness of our culture and the stories we share.
These and other works by Inuit artists are on view in A111a at the National Gallery of Canada. 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.