I have made carvings of what I have seen in my life.”
(Qoperqualu in an interview with Peter Murdoch and translated by Ali Tulugak, 1985)
Known by various names — Asia Qoperqualu, Isa Quoperqualu, Koperqualuk, and Aisa Qupirualu Alasua — the artist referred to here as Qoperqualu was born near Puvirnituq in 1916.
An accomplished carver and “early master,” Qoperqualu was encouraged to carve by James Houston in 1950, during one of Houston’s many trips along the coast of Hudson’s Bay. Charged by the Canadian Guild of Handicrafts with the task of assembling a collection of carvings for sale in the South, Houston influenced many to try their hand at carving. Qoperqualu recollects his chance encounter with Houston, recalling: “I made a little walrus by cutting off the tip from our qulliq [stone lamp]” (Qoperqualu in Wight 2006: 123).
Although Qoperqualu participated in the first experimental graphic workshop in Puvirnituq in 1961, he mainly concentrated his efforts on sculpting stone. He also occasionally worked in ivory, however, as is evidenced by one his later pieces, which was featured in the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s catalogue Winnipeg Collects: Inuit Art From Private Collections (1987).
One of the community’s first advocates of carving, Qoperqualu’s practice was well documented. Working closely with Peter Murdoch, then general manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Puvirnituq, Qoperqualu was keen to demonstrate his approach to carving. After obtaining stone — often quarrying the rock himself — Qoperqualu would first use rudimentary tools to hack off large portions of the stone that would not figure in to the final piece. He would then use an axe to carefully chip away at the block until a general shape would begin to emerge. Next, chisels were used to cut through and to further refine the stone, while sandpaper, used in consecutively finer and finer grades, was used to smooth the surface.
Concerned predominantly with the portrayal of realistic endeavours at the beginning of his career, Qoperqualu often carved hunters, women and children, and figures at work around camp. One of the foremost members of the early carving movement in Puvirnituq in the early 1950s, Qoperqualu and other artists such as Charlie Sivuarapik and Samisa Ivilla were instrumental in establishing a form of ‘POV naturalism’ (Swinton 1977: 22). Perhaps driven to portray things as accurately as possible for reasons of posterity, Marybelle Mitchell adds that:
Much has been said about the communicative aspects of Eskimo art and Povungnituk carvers certainly see this as one of the chief functions of their work. Since their desire is to be understood as Eskimos, their emphasis is on the realistic portrayal of real things. The challenge is to make these things look, and feel, as real as possible. It is almost as if they are grounding their identity by carving and re-carving the reality of existence as they have seen and feel it to be (Myers [Mitchell] 1977: 14).
Heralded as one of the most promising artists to come out of Puvirnituq, Qoperqualu’s work has been featured in notable group exhibitions nationwide. His work can be found in some of the country’s most important collections of Inuit art such as those of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal
Although Qoperqualu was a naturally skilled carver from the onset of his artistic career, his early works are characteristically dense and feature little negative space. As his competence increased with experience, his works began to incorporate a more sophisticated use of negative space. The space between legs and arms was now more carefully carved from the bulk of the stone, delineating more accurately a figure’s proportions and contours. Works incorporating more than one figure are particularly complex, often utilizing the negative space between each figure to create a sense of tension and visual interest. As he continued to mature as an artist, his work also tended to become more detailed.
Aside from his earliest pieces, which were purchased mainly by private collectors through the Hudson’s Bay Company or sales organized by the Canadian Guild of Handicrafts, Qoperqualu’s work was not formally recognized until the late 1950s. His work received widespread attention when he travelled to Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, Pittsburgh, and Ohio with fellow artists Charlie Sivuarapik and Peter Amautik and Father Andre Steinman in 1957. The group, who endeavoured to test the southern market for Puvirnituq’s carvings, was highly successful, even receiving attention from then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
Among a handful of Nunavummiut ordained as Anglican ministers in the early 1960s, Qoperqualu’s promising career as a sculptor was fairly short-lived. Feeling a “responsibility towards my people in another area,” Qoperqualu went into training for the ministry around 1965. His new career led him to additional communities throughout Nunavik, such as Fort Chimo, Kuujjuaraapik, and Kangirsuk, and left him with little time for carving.
1985 Transcript of interview with Isa Qopakualuk: Interviewed and translated by Ali Tulugak, April 28, 1985 in Povungnituk, Arctic Quebec. Ottawa: Canadian Eskimo Arts Council, in collaboration with the Inuit Art Section, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the National Film Board of Canada.
1996 From Talking Chiefs to a Native Corporate Elite. Montreal: McGill–Queen’s University Press.
1977 “The People of Povungnituk: Independent Through a Common Effort,” Povungnituk. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery.
1977 “The Povungnituk Paradox: Typically Untypical Art,” Povungnituk. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery.
2006 Early Masters — Inuit Sculpture 1949–1955. Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery.