Storytelling has always been an important part of my life, especially as a kid. Stories about Inuit mythology like the Qallupilluk, Blind Boy and the Loon, and the Owl and the Raven are burned into my memory. Davidialuk Alasua Amittu (1910–1976) was a well-respected storyteller from Puvirnituq, Nunavik, QC, greatly inspired by the narratives he heard as a child. While conveying these stories and re-telling them in his work, he was writing them down and recording them, solidifying stories from Inuit oral history with a flavour of his own. Depicting stories passed on from generation to generation, autobiographical accounts of his experiences and scenes of tragic violence remembered from his lifetime, so much of his personal history was documented in art.
Inuk Delousing Male Spirit (c. 1952) is a flash point in a story untold. It is a tender moment welcoming humour like many Inuit stories, and one where I find myself formulating the rest of the story in my head. Amittu’s storytelling ability is reflective of a long tradition of Inuit oral history, rooted in the telling and sharing of stories. It is a way in which knowledge is acquired; storytelling teaches us our past, entertains us and keeps many histories alive today, forming the cultural, mythological and historical structure of every day. Amittu was able to capture the drama of Oral Tradition through the expressiveness of body language and facial expression.
This piece reminds me of the many carvings he made of the katyutayuuq and tunnituaqruk— spirits in Inuit mythology. The katyutayuuq, a female, and tunnituaqruk, a male, are ogre creatures composed of large heads with stumpy legs. Inuk Delousing Male Spirit depicts a shaman, one who can communicate with the spirit world, picking away at the head lice on an armless tunnituaqruk.
There is something so tender about the shaman's focus on the back of the spirit’s head and his relaxed posture, as well as the cheeky knee-bended stance of the spirit. Many of Amittu’s sculptures feel compositionally two dimensional, as if they are truly meant to be seen from one angle like drawings on paper or actors in a play. When I squint my eyes, the silhouette is theatrical and I can almost see the shaman move, working away at the back of the spirit’s head.
I am nostalgically reminded of how my parents had me pick out their white hairs for 25 cents per hair when I was a kid. I remember the 25-cent wage decreasing as my parents grew more white hairs and I knew I could earn a lot more.
An artist of Amittu’s generation persevered through so much dark history, tragic violence and societal change brought about by Inuit being moved from traditional life on the land to settled communities by the Government of Canada. I am reminded of my late great grandmother who was born and raised on the land and the stories that she was able to share and those that were lost with her.
Amittu’s work reminds me of the importance of the storytellers in my life as well as the importance of telling my own stories and the stories of those around me. To solidify a story in art is to pass it along to another person, for them to recognize it and add to it, and for it to be told again and again. Oral history is beautifully carried on a bed that is art.
This series was made possible with the generous support of the TD Ready Commitment.