I look at Inuit art every day and when I saw this sculpture by Tutuyea Ikkidluak (1962–1989) I was immediately struck by its uniqueness. A thin, bald man with nothing but a cloth wrapped around his waist is not typical among the fur-clad hunters, braided mothers and transforming animalian spirits of Inuit lore. When I looked closer at the details of the artwork and saw the title Starving Ethiopian, I thought, “This must have been made in the ’80s,” and vividly remembered the imagery of starving people in commercials on TV when I was growing up.
When Ethiopia was hit by a devastating famine that lasted from 1983–1985 and affected Ethiopian people for decades, we only had a few channels in the North and international aid commercials are one of the things I remember—outside of watching my favourite cartoons and Takuginai. I didn’t realize how widely that kind of aid campaigning really affected Inuit across Inuit Nunangat until I saw this piece. I think what’s incredible about Ikkidluak’s sculpture is that it links two very different parts of the world that are not normally associated with each other. The dark-green serpentinite typical of Inuit stone sculptures adds to the initial ambiguity of the piece, showing the subject as a human first and obscuring racial elements in a deep seaweed green rather than natural human skin tones. This is an important aspect of the piece, because the plight of Ethiopians was something that struck the world in a visceral way. Seeing images and video of people suffering in your own living room made the issue one of international concern.
I expect one of the reasons that the famine was so strongly resonant for Inuit, and specifically for Ikkidluak is the relatively recent cultural memory of starvation among Inuit. Perhaps Ikkidluak had experienced periods of starvation himself or, at the very least, his parents and community had told stories of devastating famine. One thing that I have noticed about people who have experienced dire circumstances is that when they see it happening to others there is a connection formed, regardless of cultural or other differences, and a deep level of compassion that makes them want to ease the suffering.
Starving Ethiopian depicts a thin-armed man positioned low on the ground, but the motion of the figure, pushing himself up and carrying a container, gives the subject a sense of dignity and strength that international aid campaigns often lacked when trying to elicit pity and sympathy. Ikkidluak is attributing agency in this rendering of a person who is a continent away, during a tumultuous period of decolonization efforts in Africa—when African countries were contending with decades of political, social and economic destabilization. This figure is not waiting idly for someone else to save them, but is moving into action, seeking food and water for himself or his family.
The subtlety of this choice by the artist moved me in a different way from that of the Inuit art I am used to seeing. The attention to detail and the clean, strong lines of the figure’s limbs are an elegant ode to human resilience and looking at this piece reminded me that Inuit have a particular capacity for compassion and understanding that boggles my mind on a regular basis. Though our communities are small and isolated, Inuit art and artists are recognized on an international level, and pieces like this are great reminders that our artists are not only strong culture keepers but also keen to look at the wider world and empathize in a way wholly our own.
This series was made possible with the generous support of the TD Ready Commitment.