Joe Talirunili’s The Migration (1964) is a gorgeous and powerful sculpture depicting a group of Inuit huddled in an umiak, a larger boat than a qajaq. The piece paints a vivid picture of life before settlement, reminding me of a story my dad once told me of a makeshift vehicle. Before I was born, my family had been out fishing on the ice. They caught so many fish that day that they couldn’t haul them all back to camp inside their qamutiit. Instead, they wet the fish with water from the fishing hole and froze them together in the shape of a qamutiq. They used wet pieces of fur to fill in the cracks between the fish to form runners, polishing and adding water until the runners were smooth with ice. The dogs then pulled the fish qamutiq back to camp over the mainland snow.
Although Talirunili’s sculpture is able to trap the viewer on its own, it came alive for me when I learned the story behind its making, of another makeshift vehicle constructed out of necessity.
Talirunili’s family was travelling on the sea ice when they became trapped by water as the ice broke up. They had to fashion an umiak out of their belongings and the recent catches they had with them to get to safety. The stone faces of Talirunili’s family members show the severity of their emergency water journey. Capable individuals paddle the umiak while the faces of passengers, tucked in like cargo, peek from beneath their arms.
This experience was understandably life-changing and must have had traumatic after-effects for Talirunili—survivors’ names are drawn onto the antler paddles, alluding to the loss of some members of the group. An investigation of Talirunili’s life and work shows that many of his most recognizable pieces depict this incident of intense survival, including the two sculptures he created which currently hold the first and second place records for highest prices paid for work by an Inuit artist.
As time went by, Talirunili became a larger-than-life figure, known for catching seals with his bare hands and carving directly into stonecut blocks without sketching first. As his auction records show, he is well known for his storytelling power through art, and the ability of his artwork to ignite the imagination is recognized across the world. But this carving allows an intimate look into Talirunili’s memory and perhaps represents a turning point in his early life.
I’ve been hunting and fishing all my life but have never been faced with such an obstacle to overcome. I think the power of The Migration comes, in part, from its layers of meaning, depending on the viewer and their knowledge. Survival and hardship yes, but for Inuit viewers like me it can bring back memories of family on the land, togetherness, love and adventure. While I’m hesitant to romanticize Talirunili’s experience, this sculpture has permanently found a home in my mind with its flashes of scenes of Inuit life before colonization.
This series was made possible with the generous support of the TD Ready Commitment.