The Style of Nunavik Art

The Nunavik style is often described as realistic, although there are differences between and within communities. Peter Murdoch, a former Hudson’s Bay Company employee who facilitated the buying of carvings in Puvirnituq, explained the attitude towards carving while he was there:

The Puvirnituq people liked complexity. It was almost a challenge to try to make a complex composition ... I remember people would come up from Inukjuak. In those days, [the people there were] carving quite a bit as well and they would make a big fat walrus with lots of rolls of fat on it and beautiful tusks and everything. The Puvirnituq people were impressed with that ... but they never tried to do the same. When they carved, it was always more complex. They tried to make something that would surprise you, sort of stretch the stone a little bit more than you thought it could [be stretched].1

Many Nunavik artists speak of the need for truth - sulijuk - in artmaking. Paulosie Kasadluak of Inukjuak, for many years president of the cooperative wholesale organization La Fédération des Coopératives du Nouveau-Quebec (FCNQ), wrote (1977:21): "It is not only to make money that we carve. Nor do we carve make-believe things. What we show in our carving is the life we have lived in the past right up to today. We show the truth."

...his real value to printmakers and carvers alike was that he remembered the old ways"

Similarly, in Puvirnituq, Johnny Pov said that, although he wasn’t a printmaker, his real value to printmakers and carvers alike was that he remembered the old ways and that he could tell others what things usually looked like, how animals really moved (in Myers [Mitchell] 1978:14). A decade later Tamusi Tulugak, his townsman, said:

We base our judgment on the truth that it [the carving] shows, but we find that our tastes are different from southern people’s tastes - like Josie Paperk’s [Papialuk] carvings. Inuit don’t like them but people down south like them. [To us] they seem incomplete. It seems that his actual work does not meet his mind ... Although we know that Josie’s mind wants to create something beautiful and nice, his actual, physical work doesn’t meet his mind at all.

Sulijuk, as used by Nunavamiut, contains the idea of completeness. Samisa Ivilla said he always admired the work of Charlie Sheeg because "it came from his mind and was complete, a complete transfer from mind to stone." Tamusi Tulugak considered that Peter Boy and Juanisi Jack [lIukalla] achieved this ideal.

Kasadluak’s comments notwithstanding, showing the truth usually stops short of conveying the reality of life after the 1950s. While some carvers, perhaps regretting a lost way of life, recreate it, the widespread focus on the 1950s is mainly due to the value placed by the market on Inuit life as it was when their work was first made known in the South.2 Mitiardjuk of Kangiqsujuaq asked which was more valuable: a carving dressed in clothes worn by her grandmother, or one dressed in the kind of clothes she wears. With no hesitation, the co-op manager responded that he would place a higher value on sculpture depicting the earlier clothing style (Myers [Mitchell] 1984, 142-3).

Although there are exceptions to the rule – like Thomassie Kudluk in Kangirsuk who was more interested in the message than the medium – Nunavik Inuit value the realistic portrayal of real things. Artmaking is used to depict every-day activities (people hunting, nursing babies, etc.) and to record adventures. One has only to think of the many versions of the famous boat trip (The Migration) created by Joe Talirunili before his death. A lesser-known example is a print made by Johnny lnukpuk – the only print he ever made – to record his escape from three bears.

Fidelity to life may be an important motivation, but it cannot be equated with a photographic realism"

Fidelity to life may be an important motivation, but it cannot be equated with a photographic realism. Puvirnituq sculpture often has an idealized, dreamlike quality, and physiological distortions are not uncommon. A Levi Qumaluk carving of a woman will have a small head and another carver will show a man with a head twice the normal size. Another artist will emphasize the hands of a hunter by carving them out of scale. Murdoch remembers a carving made for the purpose of recording an accident. The carver, drowning in the Arctic Ocean, depicted himself being rescued with a rope, which was clenched between his teeth because his fingers were frozen. The figure was dominated by a large mouth, outsize teeth and the rope, small in the hands of the man who threw it, but widening as it reached the waiting teeth. Had he carved his version, the rescuer might have shown the same thing quite differently. This is an experiential rather than a photographic realism.

There are, of course, artists like Johnny Inukpuk who make no attempt at all to depict realistic detail. Inukpuk’s work is highly valued in southern art circles, while the narrative style of carvers like Juanisi Jack is particularly admired by their fellow Inuit. Like Tamusi Tulugak, Inuit often remark that the carvings they like are different from those admired in the South, although opinions vary, depending upon who you ask in either camp.

A few strongly personal styles emerged in Puvirnituq, including that of Joe Talirunili, whose carvings, in the later years, anyhow, were crudely made and roughly finished. Davidialuk, often referred to as a "literary artist," was distinguished for his use of sculpture and prints to tell stories. Josie Papialuk’s crude and childlike birds and fishes were as humorous as his prints. The intangibles of speech and movement, as real to Papialuk as the creatures that move and make noise, were invariably indicated on his print stone – and sometimes in his carvings – by highly specific wiggles and lines. Leah Qumaluk carved torngaks and monsters on her print stones, and carvers Eli Sallualu and Levi Pirti seemed to feel most at home with the surrealistic shapes they began producing in 1967 in response to a fantasy carving competition staged by Pat Furneaux, the federal administrator, and Nelson Graburn, an anthropologist.

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.

2 According to Darlene Wight (1990), the Hudson’s Bay Company stopped buying carvings in 1957, interpreting “a decline in sales as consumer resistance to the unpolished grey carvingstone” and this “coupled with a declining supply of stone at local quarry sites, resulted in diminished enthusiasm among carvers for creating quality sculptures.”


Kasadluak, Paulosie, 1977 “Nothing Marvellous,” in Port Harrison/Inoucdouac, ed. Jean Blodgett. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery:21-3

Myers (Mitchell), Marybelle, 1984 “Inuit Arts and Crafts Cooperatives in the Canadian Arctic,” Canadian Ethnic Studies, vol. 16, no. 3:132-53

Myers (Mitchell), Marybelle, 1978 “The People of Punvungnituk, Independent through a Common Effort,” in Povungnituk, ed. Jean Blodgett. Winnipeg:Winnipeg Art Gallery:7-18