• Feature

How One Artist Takes Meaning From the Art of His Ancestors

Family Lines

Dec 02, 2020
by Kyle Natkusiak Aleekuk

In the 60s and 70s, Ulukhaktok, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, was a printmaking hotbed, with studio artists of the Holman Eskimo Co-operative such as Peter Aliknak Banksland (1928–1998) and Agnes Nanogak Goose (1925–2001) embracing innovative printmaking techniques while developing wildly unique styles in their artmaking. The legacy of these pioneering artists lives on in the work of an up-and-coming artist who draws equal inspiration from the graphic traditions of tattooing.


BankslandPeterAliknakPreparingForFishing

Peter Aliknak Banksland
Preparing for Fishing (1999) Lithograph and stencil 38 × 57.3 cm
COURTESY WINNIPEG ART GALLERY
“Old Town, your dad’s first steps were taken around here…his old stomping grounds,” my uncle said to me in a soft voice that ended with a chuckle. The way his voice squeezed between his teeth and tongue while he smiled reminded me of my dad. 

My Uncle Angus and Auntie Mary took my younger sister and I on a walk around King’s Bay to the Old Town site when we visited Ulukhaktok, Inuvialuit Settlement Region, NT, in June of 2017. It was the first time my sister and I had visited the community where my father, Bill Natkusiak Aleekuk, was born. We travelled from Edmonton, where we live, to fulfill our dad’s request for his cremated ashes to be buried alongside his parents.

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Agnes Nanogak Goose
Sorcerer’s Powers (1973) Stonecut 61 × 45.7 cm
COURTESY WADDINGTON’S

Though he’s no longer physically with us, my father and I remain connected through our shared middle name, Natkusiak. The name originates from the generation before my dad: Natkusiak, or “Billy Banksland,” is my paternal great-grandfather [1]. Born in Alaska in the mid 1880s, Natkusiak was a guide for various Canadian Arctic expeditions that brought scientists and whalers into the North. He and his family were among the first to settle the region of Ulukhaktok in the 1930s and like many Inuit, he demonstrated endless wanderlust as a hunter, trapper and explorer.

Our walk looped around the bay and up to the bluffs that overlook the hamlet. At the ridge we stopped to enjoy the view and savour the moment when, to everybody’s surprise, a small single-prop airplane buzzed overhead. The plane ascended quickly and was soon upside down, twisting into a descent before dancing like a bird as it soared back up into the sky. The airshow was staged for the community by a professional stunt pilot, and we were lucky enough to be on the bluffs with an incredible view. For me, the airshow held a greater significance as I remembered it was Father’s Day.

NatkusiakGrave

Resting place of Natkusiak in Ulukhaktok, 2017
PHOTO THE ARTIST

My dad spent his whole life working on airplanes. Starting as a mechanic, he worked his way up to a government position as a systems safety officer for Transport Canada. His work brought him to many places, including both the North and South Poles and numerous countries in between. I remember when asked about his experience in Antarctica, my dad would always talk about the Emperor Penguin colonies. 

“Just beautiful, but you get close to them and you realize how loud and stinky they are,” he would say, bursting into laughter.

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Peter Aliknak Banksland
Numiktik (Drum Dance) (1995) Felt pen 45 × 60.5 cm
COURTESY WINNIPEG ART GALLERY

My father led a vibrant life after enduring many challenges that included surviving the residential school system. He was adopted by the Aleekuk family after that experience and carried the Aleekuk name with him throughout his life. Although he raised my sisters and I with the Aleekuk surname, he would always remind us of the Banksland family. In our family, we believe that when you pass down the name of an ancestor, you also adopt their spirit and continue their memory. I admire how my dad loved new places as it always reminds me of our namesake, Natkusiak [2]. 

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Peter Aliknak Banksland
Kapoktok (1995) Woodcut and stencil 62 × 49 cm
COURTESY CANADIAN ARCTIC PRODUCERS

After witnessing the airshow, my aunt and uncle wanted to show us the cemetery and introduce us to our ancestors. My sister and I had the honour of seeing the burial places of our relatives including my two primary artistic influences, Aliknak and his sister Nanogak. Aliknak, or Peter Aliknak Banksland (1928–1998) [3], is my paternal grandfather and the brother of Nanogak, or Agnes Nanogak Goose (1925–2001). The son and daughter of Natkusiak, Aliknak and Nanogak are both notable artists who helped to form the Holman Eskimo Co-operative in the early 1960s. The co-op encouraged Inuit artists to produce works that were to be sold in the global economy and generate income for the community. Both Aliknak and Nanogak’s catalogues of art continuously inspire me in their simplistic beauty. 

Our walk in the cemetery continued with visiting each cross and reading the names while my Uncle Angus and Auntie Mary recalled familial ties to each. It was then I remember stopping in front of one particular cross that read “Billy Natkusiak Banksland – Jan 19, 1948 – Okpaktunga.” I had a spiritual moment as I felt the embrace of the past, the present and the future in a single instant. I felt as if I was transported back in time yet pulled into the future simultaneously. That moment solidified my belief that not only do I carry the name Natkusiak but I carry the spirit as well. 

GooseAgnesNanogakKidnappedByAWalrus

Agnes Nanogak Goose
Kidnapped by a Walrus (1985) Stonecut 43 × 61 cm
COURTESY WINNIPEG ART GALLERY

“It’s me,” I quietly said to myself. “It’s my dad…it’s all of us.” I could almost hear my dad saying to me, “Too cool, eh? All of us here.”

Since that visit in 2017, I have not returned to Ulukhaktok, although I intend to. The experiences I had in Ulukhaktok profoundly affected my sense of self. I learned that when I am going through difficult times, I gravitate towards art as a form of healing and guidance. My father passed away when I was twenty-six, leaving me heartbroken. I knew I needed a positive outlet to direct my emotions so I started to focus my energy on visual arts after years of neglecting my urge to create. I started to draw for no specific reason other than to put pencil to paper. At first, I began emulating the aesthetic of American style tattoos, or flash art, with watercolour paints and soon began developing my own iconography based on my experiences as a modern Inuvialuk. This style of tattooing often depicts iconic images such as old schooners, anchors, roses, pin-up girls, daggers, skulls and hearts, and are displayed on the walls and in the waiting room binders of tattoo shops. Walk-in customers can easily choose a design off the wall for a quick tattoo, or use the flash images as the basis for a custom design from their local tattoo artist. In my own work I often return to motifs with personal meaning, such as uluit, cloudberries, char and the animals which I’ve hunted or dreamt about.

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Kyle Natkusiak Aleekuk
Dimensional Relatives (2020) Watercolour 22 × 28 cm
COURTESY THE ARTIST

I often stare at the works of Aliknak and Nanogak that adorn the walls of my home before I sit down to paint. In my living room hang two of Aliknak’s prints, Numiktik (1995) and Searching for Eggs (1992), and an untitled wall hanging by Nanogak, each piece linking me to them and to Ulukhaktok. In Numiktik a man holds a drum with his knees bent outwards in a dance pose while a woman faces him on his left with one foot pointed inwards and an arm behind her back, their bodies framing the drum. Looking at this print, I think of the heartbeat shared between couples—it reminds me of my wife and the life we share together. In Searching for Eggs, two young men dressed in dark green and bright yellow fur face each other on their hands and knees, crawling towards a nest full of eggs. Their giant smiles make their cheekbones pinch their eyes, reminding me of the grins my family wore gathering eggs during my springtime visit to Ulukhaktok. On my other wall hangs the deep olive fabric of Nanogak’s wall hanging, reminiscent of moss, depicting a proud-looking woman in a commanding stance with her feet apart and her arms by her sides. The fur on her coat points upwards as if she is fighting a gust of wind. 

Reflecting on these pieces after my father’s passing, I began to see affinities between their styles and my burgeoning one. Aliknak and Nanogak’s graphic works echo the form and palette of flash. Both used colour strategically—often limiting their palettes to a few saturated tones—and created depth by letting the negative space of the paper act as its own structure in a similar way to how classic tattoos use skin to support and contrast their fields of colour.

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Agnes Nanogak Goose
Good Hunt (1973) Stonecut 43.8 × 58.4 cm
COURTESY WADDINGTON’S

The confluence of these two art forms—the printmaking aesthetic of Aliknak and Nanogak and the iconography of American tattoos—have made an indelible mark in my work and on my skin. I have two of Aliknak’s designs tattooed on my forearms to honour his spirit: Numiktik and Kapoktok (1995). Kapoktok, which shows two successful fishermen standing by a weir, commemorates an identity-affirming ice fishing trip with my uncles in Ulukhaktok on National Indigenous Peoples Day 2017, where I caught more fish than ever before. Numiktik represents the togetherness and strong bond I share with my wife—the heartbeat of my life.

In my own paintings, I invoke the lines, ground and iconography of tattoo flash art in watercolour and India ink to create images that represent my culture and convey my experience as an Inuvialuk. Much like the subjects of Aliknak’s and Nanogak’s prints, I strive to depict life as an Inuvialuk in past, present and future times. I interpret these in my own, tattoo-influenced style, replacing the mermaids and daggers of flash with figures from my own cultural and spiritual iconography such as uluit, shaman and the inuksuk. Using the same format as flash, I often pair an object such as an ulu with bright and colourful flowers, creating contrast and balance. My work aims to depict relatable images to Inuit and represent the life forms we interact with for spiritual guidance and also which we hunt for food.

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Natkusiak, “Billy Banksland,” with his dog Mike at M’Clure Strait, Northwest Territories, 1916
COURTESY CANADIAN MUSEUM OF HISTORY PHOTO GEORGE H. WILKINS

Much like how my grandfather’s and Nanogak’s lived experience manifested in their art, I see hunting as an essential part of my creative practice, informing my art, my spirituality and how I engage with the world around me. Returning from Ulukhaktok to Alberta, I was truly awoken to the spirit of Natkusiak and the legacy of Aliknak and Nanogak when I decided to teach myself how to hunt. Much like Natkusiak, I was driven to explore the environment around me in my home province, and these growing relationships between me and the land and the animals are reflected in the subject matter of my own stories and paintings.

A theme I often use in my work is the afterlife, or “the happy hunting grounds” as I refer to it. That is where I believe my father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather and many others reside. When I get there, it is my hope that they will recognize my tattoos and know who I am.

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Kyle Natkusiak Aleekuk
Designs from Imagination (2020) Watercolour 22 × 28 cm
COURTESY THE ARTIST

Defining my identity as an Inuvialuk living outside the Inuvialuit Settlement Region has been a challenge—one that I have met with enthusiasm. I remind myself of Natkusiak and how he travelled from Alaska, explored with scientists and helped build the community of Ulukhaktok. I also remind myself that Natkusiak was born into a new body, survived the residential school system, found success in the aviation industry and travelled the world. Now, Natkusiak has been born into me, Kyle Natkusiak Aleekuk. I’m using what’s available to me to develop the spirit of Natkusiak in the modern day by telling his story, expressing it through art, travelling to new places and interacting with all life forms. I take this name to the top of mountains and to the edge of continents. My life and body are the canvas while the spirit, Natkusiak, is the artist. 


NOTES

1 It is unknown how Natkusiak became referred to as “Billy Banksland.” The name likely originates from his interactions with non-Inuit explorers, scientists and whalers working in the region. It is possible that the surname “Banksland” was adopted because Natkusiak frequently hunted and trapped on Banks Island.

2 Naming practices are not uniform across all Inuit communities or family structures. 

3 Aliknak, whose work was included in the Holman Annual Print Collection from 1967–1994, was variously identified as Alec Aliknak Banksland, Peter Aliknak Banksland and Aliknok across collection catalogues.


This Feature first appeared in the Fall 2020 issues of the Inuit Art Quarterly.