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Peter Morgan's "An Evil Angagok"

Word Play: 5 Works on Language

Feb 18, 2020
by Jessica MacDonald

The anthropomorphized polar bears in this piece bring a smile to my face, their booted feet marching determinedly homeward with their catch. Morgan has picked out the bears with fluid outlines, colouring their boots and catch black but leaving the rest as negative space. These bears, partially dressed like Winnie the Pooh or Paddington, instantly bring to my imagination childhood play.

But when this print appeared in Morgan’s 1976 solo print catalogue—the second-ever solo print catalogue by an Inuit artist—it was titled An Evil Angagok and captioned “A long time ago, an evil angagok (one with spiritual powers) turned polar bears into human beings and Inuit into polar bears.” Far from joyful, we are to understand that these are humans trapped in the wrong body.

The syllabics printed onto the work, however, belie this assertion. “A very long time ago, it is said, polar bears had the ability to transform into Inuit and Inuit into polar bears with the aid of Angakkuit (Shamans).” Rather than being powerless, Morgan's caption reveals that these figures had agency, the power to take on other shapes at will and use them to their benefit. Was his true meaning simply lost in translation, or was the narrative deliberately obscured by forces representing Christian and settler cultural norms? In either case, it is astonishing to realize the power held by the person who names a piece, and the role naming plays in our understanding of art.

— Jessica MacDonald, Online Editor

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