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An Artist and His Work

Dec 21, 2017
by John Geoghegan

At the time of writing this piece, there are no fewer than five solo exhibitions of Inuit artists open across North America.[1] The solo show, be it a new body of work at a commercial gallery or a large-scale retrospective at a major institution, is an important marker in the career of any artist. Given their ubiquity today, it is difficult to imagine a time when solo exhibitions of Inuit artists were rare, or that there was ever a definitive “first”, but indeed there was. Tiktak: Sculptor from Rankin Inlet, N.W.T. opened on March 4, 1970, at Gallery One One One in Winnipeg, MB, and marked the first formal retrospective of an Inuk artist. 

Noted art historian George Swinton, then Director of Exhibitions at the School of Art at the University of Manitoba, curated the exhibition. In the catalogue, which was also the first solely dedicated to an Inuit artist, Swinton writes, “In May 1964, I took my first trip to Rankin Inlet. The two artists who caught my immediate attention were Tiktak and Kavik.… Though Tiktak is the much younger of the two, his art is more archaic. It is mostly for this very odd reason that my personal choice for this first retrospective exhibition was Tiktak; obviously my choice for the next will be Kavik.”[2] Looking past Swinton’s outdated language, we see he was undoubtedly attracted to John Tiktak’s RCA (1916–1981) striking, monumental stone figures, whose stylized faces resemble Thule wood and ivory carvings.

The exhibition featured 50 stone carvings from 19 private, public and corporate collections across Canada (many of which have since found their way into the permanent collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery). Works were organized chronologically and featured Tiktak’s best-known motifs: smiling faces, lone figures, mothers with children and clustered heads.

TiktakJohnMotherAndChild John Tiktak, Mother and Child, c. 1963-64, stone, 13 × 8.9 × 8.6 cm TWOMEY COLLECTION, WINNIPEG ART GALLERY, PHOTO ERNEST MAYER

On Wednesday, March 18, just four days before it closed, Tiktak himself visited the exhibition, attended a press conference and gave an interview to The Winnipeg Tribune with translation provided by Professor R.G. Williamson, a fellow resident of Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet), NU, and early supporter of the artist’s work. “Everything I do,” the Tribune quoted the artist, “is evocative of my tremendously strong feelings about my family.”[3] Tiktak’s familial connections resonate from the black-and-white illustrations in the catalogue. The 28 illustrations reveal tender moments between mothers and children, joyous groupings of exuberant heads and solitary moments of contemplation. Upon first glance many appear similar, but closer looking reveals that each figure is rendered with its own personality and character; no doubt each is a portrait of a family member or close friend.

It appears that Swinton was keenly aware of the exhibition’s importance: “No longer are we looking at isolated or odd works of an occasional carver or of an exotic souvenir marker; this exhibition reveals an artist and his work,” he wrote. Swinton’s declaration that Tiktak was an artist seems perhaps superfluous now, but given the long marginalization of Inuit art by mainstream art-audiences, it was largely necessary in 1970.

Tiktak’s one-man show was a watershed moment in the field of Inuit art. It paved the way for the hundreds (if not thousands) of solo shows that followed. Though difficult to definitively prove, it seems likely that soon after the closing of Tiktak: Sculptor from Rankin Inlet, N.W.T. there has always been, without interruption, at least one solo-exhibition of an Inuit artist open at any given time somewhere in the world. Inuit art history has the rare privilege to be able to pinpoint the exact moment that exposure for artists began, one not enjoyed by many other fields, but then again, not every discipline has an artist as captivating as John Tiktak.


[1] In the fall of 2017 the following solo exhibitions of Inuit artists are currently on view: Barry Pottle: The Awareness Series (June 28, 2017–January 14, 2018) at the Art Gallery of Hamilton; Annie Pootoogook: Cutting Ice (September 2, 2017–February 11, 2018) at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection; Myths, Legends, and Stories: Sculpture by Abraham Anghik Ruben (September 17–December 31, 2017) at the Dennos Museum Center; Shuvinai Ashoona: A For Sure World (October 14–November 15, 2017) at Marion Scott Gallery; and Pitaloosie Saila: A Personal Journey (October 28, 2017–May 13, 2018) at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

[2] George Swinton, Tiktak: Sculptor from Rankin Inlet, N.W.T. (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1970), n.p.

[3] “Tiktak fashions soapstone into tales of Eskimo life,” The Winnipeg Tribune, March 19, 1970.

This legacy piece originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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