Making Art in Nunavik

A Brief Historical Overview

Although Inuit carving has been widely known in the South since the late 1940s, Inuit say that it has been around “for a long time.” Qoperqualu of Puvirnituq remembered seeing carved walrus bones and ivory carvings “drilled through with a mouth drill” in old Tunit houses.1 In more recent times, Nunavik Inuit made small carvings in ivory – tusk for teeth – to barter with explorers, whalers, and other arctic visitors. But it was only after they were visited in 1948 by James Houston, a young artist from southern Ontario, that art production for export began in earnest.

Many Nunavik artists speak of the need for truth - sulijuk - in artmaking.

The first place Houston visited was Inukjuak, on the east coast of Hudson Bay. There, he received a small bear carving from Naiomialook in exchange for a drawing. After that, Houston wrote for a Winnipeg Art Gallery publication (1977:11), “such sculptors as Akeeaktashuk, Sywollie, Amidilak, Isa Smiler, Inukpuk the elder and his son, Johnnie, Naiomialook, and many others seemed to rise like comets. The number of adult males in any community who practiced carving successfully was astonishing, sometimes up to 80 per cent.”

Describing carvings that were being made on the east coast of Hudson Bay in the early 1950s, Houston wrote (ibid., 10):

One practice was the insertion of ivory faces and other ivory parts, i.e., hands, legs, on stone figures. Also, stone parts were occasionally put on ivory figures, i.e. necks of geese, figures in igloos. I do not know where this custom of mixed media came from or why it so soon disappeared. Then, too, the habit of incising lines and dots on carvings of birds and humans was an earlier Thule practice that seemed to linger into modern times. It has not yet fully disappeared.

Farther up the coast on Hudson Strait, the Salluit people were selling handicrafts to icebreaker crews during the summer and to the Roman Catholic mission. Barry Roberts (1976:13) notes that wood and sealskin kayaks were purchased for $1 each and cribbage boards for $10. Miniature harpoons were “finely worked” in rosewood salvaged from the wreck of the cargo ship Avon River, which had met its end on Mansel Island. Women made grass baskets, and an elder named Elaija produced crucifixes and rosaries for the Church. In 1952, Hudson’s Bay Company manager, Jim Haining, organized groups to go by dogteam up the Kovik River Valley to quarry stone, which he bought for five cents a pound and resold to carvers for the same price (ibid., 14). “Excellent carvers soon appeared and their work was displayed in the company store as examples and encouragement to others.” In 1954, 500 cases of carvings were sent south for sale through the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal (ibid., 15). Until the 1960s, Salluit was one of the largest carving producing centres in the Arctic.2

Until the 1960s, Salluit was one of the largest carving centres in the Arctic.

In Puvirnituq, as elsewhere, missionaries and Hudson’s Bay Company employees played a key role in the development of carving. Paulosie Sivuak began to carve after meeting Jim Houston. He remembers Houston communicating with the carvers through HBC employees, and, in a 1985 interview, Sivuak recalled the successive HBC managers who bought carvings: Putinaki (“He’s got hardly any meat on his rear") was the first, and also the first to give carvers sandpaper with which they could finish their work. Shorty Tingling was next, followed by Casey Jones, then Peter Murdoch. Sivuak remembers the book of instructions to carvers produced by Houston for the

Canadian Handicrafts Guild, but said, "I didn’t follow his advice because I didn’t like those drawings at all. But some women took his advice and put designs on their baskets."

Samisa Ivilla, also of Puvirnituq, remembered Jim Houston very well having sold him a little bird. "It must have been appealing to Mr. Houston, because he paid me $5 for it, and with that I was able to buy a lot of essential foods—flour and other stuff." Ivilla also remembered his first meeting with Peter Murdoch, who he credits with having implanted the co-op idea. "Father Steinmann [a Roman Catholic missionary] implemented Peter’s idea," he says. Andre Steinmann was remembered by Sarah Joe (daughter of Joe Talirunili) as the "Big Mouth" in the village on the subject of the co-op movement. Tamusi Tulugak, long-time manager of the Puvirnituq co-op, remembered that the missionary encouraged people to do biblical scenes, such as figures of Jesus on the cross. Steinmann was, he said, very helpful in marketing. But "some carvings were rejected because of Father Steinmann’s influence—because he felt that some were not good enough to accept, whereas if we were only Inuit [doing the judging], we would have accepted all the carvings."

Inukjuak and Puvirnituq have long been the most prominent art producing centres in Nunavik, but some interesting work has come out of Kuujjuaraapik, a mixed Cree and Inuit community and a former air force base. There has long been a variety of jobs available in this community and, consequently, relatively few people involved in artmaking. Henry Napartuk, one of the more prominent artists, carved and made drawings and prints. Annie Niviaxie’s mother and children sculptures were sought after, and Lucy Meeko, who experimented with printmaking in the 1970s, has lately taken up carving.

Ivujivik, north of Puvirnituq, is a small community without a Hudson’s Bay post. The best-known carvers from that community are the lyaituk brothers, Nutaraaluk, now deceased, and Mattiusi, sons of Markussie lyaituk, also a talented carver. Nutaraaluk, who lived in Akulivik, was known for his massive bears and human figures, usually of women. The younger of the two, Mattiusi, has successfully combined some of the earlier techniques described by Houston – incised lines, inlaid faces, dots – with abstract forms.

Although they also bartered small figures with early arctic visitors, carving is not as highly developed an activity among the people of Ungava, perhaps because stone was not as available. In the 1970s, people in Kangiqsualujjuaq (site of the first arctic cooperative), began to achieve some success working small figures in bone and antler. Peter Morgan has done impressive work in this medium. Morgan and his father-in-law, Tivi Etook, also produced several stonecut print editions in the 1970s. Jobie Arnaituq has been carving for years in Kangiqsujuaq, and, although his work is not widely known, Thomassie Kudluk of Kangirsuk created a small but interesting body of "social commentary" sculpture.

This is an excerpt from “Making Art in Nunavik: A Brief Historical Overview,” by Marybelle Mitchell, published in Inuit Art Quarterly (IAQ), vol. 13, no. 3 (Fall):4-17


1 Unless otherwise noted, this and other quotes are from interviews I did in Puvirnituq in 1985 with the following people: Aisa Qoperqualu Alasua, Paulosie Sivuak, Sarah Joe, Samisa Ivilla, Eli Sallualu, Tamusi Tulugak, Nutaraaluk Iyaituk, Thomassie Sivuarapik, Lucassie Tookalook, Peter Murdoch, and Aliva Tulugak.


Houston, John, 1977 “Port Harrison, 1948,” in Port Harrison/Inoucdjouac (catalogue), ed. Jean Blodgett. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery:7-11

Roberts, Barry, 1976 The Inuit Artists of Sugluk. Montreal: La Fédération des Coopératives du Nouveau-Quebec