Kayaks and Caribou
Like many of Myra Kukiiyaut’s (1929-2006) drawings, Kayaks and Caribou takes a single, captivating moment and pauses it, stretching it out by pushing and prodding and collapsing a cast of characters into a highly orchestrated, dynamic scene. Here, the bodies of Kukiiyaut’s multicoloured caribou swirl and melt into the page. Alongside them, a fleet of kayaks and hunters surge upwards, cresting on invisible waves and pushing their targets ever forward. In the chaotic centre, however, a single kayaker is tossed upside down, hinting at the inherent danger of the pursuit despite the artist’s cheerful palette and fluid line making. This work, like many of Kukiiyaut's graphics, skillfully marries complex and personal narrative with pure visual pleasure, and like most of her drawings leaves us with more questions than answers—namely, did this figure eventually flip right side up? I certainly hope so.
Tony Anguhalluq Three Inuit are going to go camping to hunt seal and fish in the middle of June (2007) Courtesy Marion Scott Gallery
Three Inuit are going to go camping to hunt seal and fish in the middle of June
Colour fills the page in Tony Anguhalluq's Three Inuit are going to go camping to hunt seal and fish in the middle of June, which manages to be simultaneously bright and ominous. The landscape dominates the work, seen in an aerial view so that all of its massive features are flattened, only differentiated by colour. A tiny, minimalist depiction of a boat sits along a purple shore, with three Inuit hunters standing and staring at the sea. While the dark tones of the piece could signal peril, they look relaxed and prepared, ready to hunt. Anguhalluq's use of scale makes the possibilities of their hunt feel broad and limitless, hidden just out of sight on the dark sea.
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Itee Pootoogook Rowing His Boat (2013) Courtesy David Native Canadian Arts
Rowing His Boat
Against a grey backdrop of the sea stretching out to meet the hopeful blue of the horizon, a single rowboat floats alone in the calm of the water, its occupant reflected in the still mirror of the surface. I was drawn to the image as it captures a sense of loneliness adrift
in the vast open ocean. I was reminded of an old man I passed during a recent ferry trip. He was in a rickety-looking aluminum boat paddling out to sea. I thought of him for some time after that trip, wondering where his solitary oar strokes were propelling him.
In Rowing His Boat, though, Itee Pootoogook’s (1951-2014) mariner is not rowing out into the abyss of the expanse of water beyond, but faces the distant horizon, paddling himself backwards to the shore. Wherever in that grey expanse he has spent the day, he is on his way home now, to whatever awaits him where the saltwater meets the land.
Abraham Anghik Ruben Animal Spirit Umiak (c. 2010) Courtesty Waddington's
Abraham Anghik Ruben, OC
Animal Spirit Umiak
From Hringhorni, the “greatest of all ships” of Norse Mythology, to Charon ferrying the dead across the river Styx, boats
have figured prominently across the globe’s mythologies for millennia. For Inuit,
who have subsisted almost exclusively on marine life, boats are central to both everyday life and figure prominently in mythology.
In Abraham Anghik Ruben's Animal Spirit Umiak we see a vivid depiction of shaman tales of tarniit (spirit animals) riding in a boat on the back of Sedna. Through his signature use of flowing lines and intricate otherworldly subject matter, Ruben creates magnificent imagery of Sedna guiding the tarniit across the water, her body mimicking the motion of waves.
Joe Talirunili Boat and Six Men (c. 1965) Courtesy Art Gallery of Ontario
Boat and Six Men
Sometimes, through repetition, an artist can come to almost own a certain subject. Think Degas’s ballerinas, O’Keeffe’s flowers up close and Warhol’s soup cans. Many artists have made work about boats, even dedicated their careers to marine paintings or models, but few have captured the subject quite like Joe Talirunili (1893-1976).
Boat and Six Men is different than the migration scenes for which Talirunili is best known. It is smaller, with far fewer figures and no sail. But the details that have made the artist’s boats so beloved and sought after are alive in this piece. Expressive faces and tense body language articulated so clearly in a single piece of stone—this piece is a quiet marvel.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.