While traveling near his home in northern Quebec in the early 1900s, the late Inuit artist Joe Talirunili, a young boy at the time, and other members of his small community became trapped on an ice floe in Hudson Bay. The elders, realizing the party could soon perish from starvation, managed to fashion an umiak—a boat made of animal skins—in which the group returned safely to shore. Talirunili, who died in 1976, was so affected by the experience that decades later he depicted it in several of his undated sculptures (each of them later named The Migration). One of these, a piece in which the oarsmen are presented as animals, sold at auction last April for a quarter of a million dollars ($278,500 Cdn.), a record for Inuit art.
Waddington’s, the Toronto auction house that sold the sculpture, conducts biannual Inuit art auctions that have posted steadily rising prices over the past few years. Another Talirunili piece, a soapstone hunter that stands 17 inches tall, will sell at Waddington’s next auction November 6 and 7.
Most Inuit art is created in about 30 native settlements scattered throughout northern Canada. Sculpture is the oldest Inuit art form, originating more than 2,000 years ago with the now-extinct Dorset culture, whom archaeologists believe created carvings for use in shamanic rituals. Now, as then, the Inuit employ homemade hatchets, chisels, and files to transform stone, antlers, whale bone, and ivory into images that tell the stories of their lives. (Many modern carvers augment their workbenches with small power tools.)
Outside interest in Inuit art remained modest until 1949, when Canadian artist James Houston purchased some carvings during an expedition and exhibited them at a Montreal gallery. Response was strong enough that the Canadian government, assisted by the Hudson’s Bay Co.—which, as North America’s oldest corporation, had been trading with the Inuit people since the 1600s—formed co-ops in the 1950s and ’60s to help the artists sell their works.
“At the beginning, the artists were just carving life,” says Darlene Wight, curator of the world’s largest collection of modern Inuit art, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG). “But now, there is less interest in portraying the traditional subject matter of hunting scenes or mothers and children. And fewer people are doing art. The younger people are not becoming carvers—they can speak English, so they can take other jobs.” Still, Wight says, she sees a youthful exuberance in the finest new works coming from the Arctic, and a renewed focus on shamans and storytelling. To illustrate, she indicates a recently acquired carving, one among the hundreds of others in the museum’s Inuit vault, called The Legend of the Northern Lights, by Palaya Qiatsuq. According to the myth, if you whistle while viewing the lights, the beams will descend and behead you. Here, the artist has captured his ethereal subject in cold stone. Like a piece showing animals paddling for their lives, this carving manages simultaneously to portray whimsy and brutality—elements that together are bound to generate universal interest.
Winnipeg Art Gallery