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Manasie Akpaliapik is known for his highly detailed and expressive sculptures made of organic materials such as whale bone, antler, baleen and stone.
Born near Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay), NU, and now living between Montreal, QC, and Ottawa, ON, Akpaliapik is inspired by the materials themselves, which guide both what he creates and the stories that he weaves into his work. Exploring themes such as Inuit traditional lifestyles, relationships with animals, cultural connection and identity, Akpaliapik’s sculptures beckon a closer look.
Here, IAQ Associate Editor Lisa Frenette hears from Akpaliapik, who is longlisted for the 2023 Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award, on five works that encapsulate his aptitude for combining detailed carving with meaning-making.
Manasie Akpaliapik Fear of Losing One's Culture (c. 2000) Whalebone, caribou antler, white stone and black African wonderstone 68 x 78 x 20 cm COURTESY MNBAQ GIFT OF RAYMOND BROUSSEAU PHOTO IDRA LABRIE © THE ARTIST
Fear of Losing One’s Culture
Fear of Losing One’s Culture (c. 2000) is a poignant ode to the pull between two cultures that many Inuit experience within recent generations. In this sculpture, Akpaliapik let the fissure in the whale bone inspire him to create a face split down the middle, symbolizing a divide within himself. “When I was growing up, the rules in school were to not speak Inuktitut and at home we were not allowed to speak English,” says the artist. “It made me wonder. Am I supposed to have a split life? That's where the idea came from.”
The way that Akpaliapik crafted this sculpture—using the materials to guide the process and meaning—illustrates his ability to see beyond the material to what he wants to communicate in the finished work. The structure of this piece is simple yet arresting, making tangible the complex relationships with cultural identity that many Indigenous people share.
Manasie Akpaliapik Respecting the Circle (1989) Whalebone, ivory, dark grey stone, antler, baleen, rust stone and horn 52 x 71.4 x 40 cm COURTESY ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO GIFT OF SAMUEL AND ESTHER SARICK © THE ARTIST
Respecting the Circle
The morphing and multi-faced sculpture Respecting the Circle (1989) reveals deeper layers of meaning and imagery with every look. Animal faces, limbs, beaks, wings and fins poke out from every angle, creating a kaleidoscope of creatures. Akpaliapik’s aptness for carving is on full display in the anonymous face situated at the centre of the composition. The expression of anger and shock represents the hostility of humans towards the animals on this planet we are meant to coexist with. “This piece is about the relationship between humans and the animals—how they are connected,” says Akpaliapik. “I wanted to show that connection and also that we can have a gentler relationship with them.”
Situated at the very top are two rotund faces gazing upwards with hopeful expressions, possibly signaling a brighter future where humans will return to an interconnected relationship with animals—much like the ways of life of traditional Inuit culture.
Manasie Akpaliapik Suicide Story (1992) Whale bone, horn, teeth, baleen and rifle cartridge 37.4 x 87.4 x 32.2 cm COURTESY ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO GIFT OF SAMUEL AND ESTHER SARICK © THE ARTIST
Akpaliapik does not shy away from difficult or challenging topics facing Inuit in his art, as seen in his pensive sculpture Suicide Story (1992). Two solemn faces are carved on either side of the whale bone, surrounding a hole that cradles a collapsed figure. Within the centre of this figure is a rifle cartridge—the only non-organic material within the sculpture. On the backside of the bone are more grief-stricken faces, symbolizing all of those affected by the loss of the ones they love.
While it may be difficult to take in the gravity of the meaning behind this piece, for Akpaliapik, it is important to discuss suicide and its effects on the community. “I have lost good friends and relatives this way and I’m trying to bring this to light because nobody wants to talk about it,” he says. “In order to change something we need to talk about it. This is why I made this piece.”
Manasie Akpaliapik The Sacred Owl (c. 2000) Whalebone, white stone and black African wonderstone 106 x 62 x 43.5 cm COURTESY MNBAQ GIFT OF RAYMOND BROUSSEAU PHOTO IDRA LABRIE © THE ARTIST
The Sacred Owl
“When I look at owls, I see wisdom,” says Akpaliapik. The artist has encapsulated the significance of the bird within his fittingly titled The Sacred Owl (c. 2000). On one side of the sculpture, the owl’s wing is pulled tightly to its body, appearing as if in a sitting position, and on the other side, its wing is extended as if it is about to take flight. Exposed from beneath this open wing is a human hand grasping a tablet inscribed with syllabics. By incorporating a human into this animal figure, Akpaliapik illustrates our connection to the animal world and the lessons it has to teach us. “I always say that they carry our legends and stories—all the information that we need,” he says.
The Sacred Owl shows Akpaliapik’s love for unconventional approaches to familiar subject matter. The merging of human and animal in this piece pushes beyond what is traditionally expected of owl sculptures. “Don't be afraid to be different,” says Akpaliapik. “A lot of times people try to do things the way other people do. It’s nice to be different.”
Manasie Akpaliapik Ancient Traditional Inuit Cleansing Ceremony (2018) Whale bone, stone, antler and horn 101.5 x 141 x 36 cm COURTESY KIPLING GALLERY © THE ARTIST
Ancient Traditional Inuit Cleansing Ceremony
Ancient Traditional Inuit Cleansing Ceremony (2018) is a feast for the eyes, filled to the brim with intricate faces, animals and symbolism. This piece commands attention, with whale bone, stone, antler and horn fusing together in a complex entanglement. “I created this piece at a time when I was beginning to experiment with larger pieces,” says the artist. He was inspired to create a large piece that illustrated the loss of certain traditions in Inuit culture, and of connection between humans and the spirit world.
One of the traditions he depicts in the piece is a cleansing ceremony that was performed when a hunt was unsuccessful. Every angle of the sculpture reveals a different scene that points to this ceremony, from a drum dancer and a shaman, to owls and the faces of seals. Akpaliapik also nods to the respect humans need to have for all living things, especially when hunting. Akpaliapik beautifully illustrates how all life is connected in this merging of elements of Inuit traditional life and the natural world.
Read more about the other longlisted artists.
The Kenojuak Ashevak Memorial Award is made possible through the support of individual donors and RBC Emerging Artists.