• Feature

What Makes the Sculpture of Arviat Different?

Jul 24, 2020
by Norman Zepp

Long recognized for the distinctly minimal and austere qualities of its stone carving, Arviat sculpture is a perfect marriage of formal sensitivity and unrelenting material. 

The Kivalliq (formerly Keewatin) is a region in Nunavut noted for its special circumstances. Located on the west coast of Tasiujarjuaq (Hudson Bay) some 200 kilometres north of Churchill, MB, is Arviat, today a community of some 2,300 people. For many residents, their traditional land and culture is that of the Caribou Inuit, in particular the Ihalmiut, formerly of the Ennadai Lake area [1]. As early as the 1920s, Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen wrote of the particularly harsh and tenuous life on the so-called Barren Grounds. Owing largely to the fluctuations in caribou migration, it was often feast or famine.

It is tempting to suggest that the particular severity of the lived experiences, prior to settlement life, of many Kivalliq region artists has somehow contributed to the austere quality of much Arviat sculpture created between 1960 and the mid-1990s: an art form stripped of superfluous detail. Elements such as hands or fingers are realized as rudimentary scratches or grooves and limbs are truncated. Faces, although at times expressive, are rendered with simple and generalized features. However, cultural and geographic speculation aside, I would suggest that it is the nature of the stone itself that is most responsible for Arviat sculpture’s characteristics.


John Pangnark
Figure (c. 1975) Stone 11.4 x 10.4 x 7 cm
Courtesy Donald Ellis Gallery, New York, NY, and Vancouver, BC

The local, grey stone used by most artists is hard, difficult to carve and resists polishing. This contributes to, and no doubt is largely responsible for, the harsh and at times rough quality of the works from the region. The hardness of this metamorphic rock from the Kaminak Lake quarry, some 130 kilometers from the hamlet, is due to concentrations of mica and chlorite, or magnetite and calcite. This stone contains just enough of the softer talc to be called steatite. Its dense, homogenous nature (massive in geological terms) makes it suitable for carving compact forms, but does not allow for long, narrow appendages or slender curvilinear forms. Nor does it enable the carver to form fine naturalistic details, even if desired.

In contrast to the flamboyant serpentinite sculpture from Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) communities, such as Kinngait (Cape Dorset), or the highly detailed, naturalistic art crafted with Northern Nunavik steatite or the expressionistic whalebone carvings from Kitikmeot (Central Arctic), much of the art from the Kivalliq, with its strong emphasis on form and line, appears decidedly minimal. This is not a negative observation, but rather it refers to the vitality and immediacy of expression common to sculpture reduced to essential form. The community of Arviat is home to several artists who have rendered their spare sculptures with a strength and purity of vision that reveals them to be artists of the highest order.

Recognized for having one of the largest percentages of artists of any northern community during the four decades in question, Arviat continues to be known for its large number of women carvers. I have chosen to focus on the sculpture of Andy Miki (1918-1982), John Pangnark (1920-1980), Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok (1934-2012), Mary Ayaq Anowtalik, Luke Anowtalik (1932-2006), Elizabeth Nutaraluk Aulatjut (1914-1998) and Eva Talooki Aliktiluk (1927-1994), amongst many notables residing in this creative community [2]. These artists generally favoured the subjects common to the art of this region—mother and child, multi-headed figures and single figures of people and animals—done in a semi-representational, non-narrative manner. This intuitive preoccupation with the resolution of formal problems by Arviat artists has resulted in works that are surprisingly unlike those which we have come to associate with the Inuit sculpture of popular imagination, characterized by convincing illustrations of stories and legends or detailed depictions of traditional life and naturalistic renderings of fauna.


Eva Talooki Aliktiluk
Woman (c. 1980) Stone, glass beads and thread 20 x 11.5 x 11 cm
Courtesy Walker’s Auctions, Ottawa Photo Dieter Hessel

The experience of Andy Miki was similar to many of his peers. Born near the Kazan River, Miki lived in the Ennadai Lake area trading into Padlei. In 1959 Miki was relocated to Arviat and then to Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet) before settling in Tikirarjuaq (Whale Cove). Facilitated by the federal government and necessitated by widespread starvation, many inland Inuit, and almost all Caribou Inuit, moved to the coastal communities of Kangiqliniq, Tikirarjuaq and Arviat during this period. Today Miki’s sculptures are appreciated for their subtle form, coupled with a strong linear sense; often the eye is led to the outer edges where the form is outlined, as though drawn by a sensitive line.

Successful artists must be given credit for knowing not only the limitations of the medium, but of themselves. Many Arviat artists acknowledged limited carving skill when it came to any attempt at realism, and so were able to take advantage of the unforgiving nature of the available material. In Miki’s case, his eschewal of the human subject averted the need for the articulation of demanding elements such as hands or faces. Rather, his oeuvre is virtually entirely composed of animal forms rendered with a minimum of detail or identifying features. Only occasionally do we find longish ears to signify the object as a hare or antlers to designate a caribou. Nevertheless, for an artist such as Miki, be they depictions of a dog, bear or bird, these often ambiguous images remained meaningful to him as evocations of such.

Similarly, of the dozens of works by Pangnark that I have seen, the most overt indications of subject matter are angular yet flowing appendages and simplified visages. Humanness is often indicated merely by a small, finely incised face (always on an upward facing plane) and two slight notches on the sides to denote arms; Pangnark seemed to know instinctively that an otherwise undifferentiated mass needs precisely that relief.


Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok
Family Group (1988) Stone 44 x 32 x 19 cm
University of Saskatchewan Collection, Saskatoon

Interviews make it clear that other Inuit artists saw little relevance or worth in these simple renderings, describing them as childlike or humorous at best [3]. This is a reflection of the tendency of most people anywhere to favour detailed and naturalistic efforts, indicative of technical proficiency. Indeed, even within an overall Kivalliq aesthetic, Miki and Pangnark’s art stands out for its predilection to abstraction and stylization. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the greatest appreciation for their art is found with an audience such as connoisseur, art historian and critic George Swinton, conditioned to respond to and appreciate modern European sculptors like Constantin Brâncuși or Henry Moore. Swinton wrote of Pangnark:

He was doubtlessly the Brâncuși of the North, with a rare feeling for abstraction and for the sheer beauty of curved and hard-edged shapes. He couldn’t put any of these thoughts into words, but he did what counts most: he made them into sculptures [4].

I would argue that Swinton’s words can be applied, in varying degrees, to several Kivalliq artists. I also suggest that without such an awareness and recognition of the Modernist aesthetic, the art of Miki and many of his peers would have remained largely underappreciated, if not unknown.


Mary Ayaq Anowtalik
Mother and Children (c. 2000) Stone 29.5 x 27 x 21 cm
University of Saskatchewan Collection, Saskatoon

With few exceptions most Arviat artists avoided altering the stone’s essential shape [5]. Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok was a master at retaining her stone’s original mass and profile, allowing it instead to imply the body of the principle figure, usually a woman. She never carved a complete figure, choosing rather to carve out heads or rudimentary appendages along the outer edges or to take advantage of naturally-occurring prominences. One of the best examples of this “truth to materials” is found in a large family-group carving wherein Tutsweetok retained the hole that resulted while quarry drilling.

I would also suggest that the heads and faces in many of works are not there solely to represent specific people or family members, but rather are carved for their own sakes, as formal elements. When I asked Tutsweetok if the heads populating a large piece referred to her family, she replied, “Perhaps, but maybe your family!” Commenting on a photo of a piece by Pangnark, with its slight indication of subject, Tutsweetok replied, “I think that he was probably like myself, trying to represent something in a way, but I don’t really copy. I don’t really make it human but in some sort of abstract way. He was probably the same.” As further evidence of an aesthetic impulse, Tutsweetok went on to say, “It’s kind of nice to have all those faces,” [6].


Luke Anowtalik
Thoughts of Caribou (1997) Stone and antler 40 x 36 x 37 cm
Private collection

For the most part, the art of this period was created within the context of the group. The result was a dominant community aesthetic that most adopted or at least adapted to. Simply stated, the artists were well aware of the sculpture being produced by others around them. Indeed, many would work alongside each other, imparting a strong social element to the daily exercise of artmaking. Some, like Tutsweetok, Pangnark and Miki, were known to often carve side-by-side. Many families had two or three artists who often worked so closely that attribution is at times difficult, such as the sculptures of Mary Ayaq Anowtalik and her husband, Luke Anowtalik, or Luke and Joy Kiluvigyuak Hallauk (1931-1993 and 1940-2000 respectively).

Indicative of the high regard for the maternal bond, Mary Ayaq’s sculpture emphasizes the centrality of women and mothers in Inuit life through the depiction of a large female figure (identified as such by her parka, the amauti) encompassed by heads and smaller figures [7]. Ayaq’s husband, Luke Anowtalik, also used a principle figure to depict the centrality of the main image and the interdependence of the various other elements chiselled into the stone in low relief. In several of his larger works, the all-important caribou plays the central role; its broad mass is surrounded by and supports human figures and heads, personifying the supportive and nurturing essence of this noble creature. Anowtalik was also renowned for his skill as a carver of antler and his incorporation of the material into some of his pieces serves to tangibly ground his creations whilst animating them both literally and figuratively.

Elizabeth Nutaraluk Aulatjut’s pieces have a sense of rough immediacy, reminiscent of John Kavik (1897-1993), and an almost gaunt-like intensity, triggering associations with the frost-shattered rocks that characterize the local topography. Like many other artists of the region, Aulatjut limits the degree to which she imposes her sculptural will by following the natural shape of the stone, utilizing the outer ridges to depict her patented braided hair, and prominences to depict a child as a gently rounded form emerging from the mass of the mother, while remaining integrated formally into the whole.


Elizabeth Nutaraluk Aulatjut
Untitled (man giving fish to woman) (c. 1970-74) Stone 18.4 x 24.1 x 7.6 cm
Collection of Stephanie Comer and Rob Craigie Photo: expandinginuit .com

The spread of the fur trade through the nineteenth century into the Canadian Northwest brought with it the tradition of incorporating beadwork into Inuit clothing design. The Inuit of southern Kivalliq were soon producing wonderfully decorated parkas. One of the first artists to reflect this practice in her art was Susan Ootnooyuk (1918-1977), who would then influence her niece, Eva Talooki Aliktiluk. Aliktiluk became renowned for her creative juxtaposition of brightly coloured beadwork and reserved, grey stone, draping strands of beads over the figure or sewing them into little hide and felt parkas. Though small, with their unyielding stone bodies, such pieces do not easily function as dolls. The contrast of the underlying, stern stone figure with the preciousness imparted by the decorative beads results in a visually pleasing form. Aliktiluk’s signature beading has been echoed by several other Arviat artists, including by her daughter-in-law Mary Tutswuitok.

Although geographic, cultural and historical circumstances play a role in the nature of the art produced, I have found in community after community, whether stone, bone, antler or ivory, an extraordinary and seemingly innate awareness and understanding of the possibilities—and the limitations—inherent in the medium. I have observed that the material is such a fundamental determinant as to the kind of art produced that it even trumps the demands of the market. During the sixties, the money received by southern Kivalliq artists for their sculpture was less, relative to that received by artists in some other communities. Nevertheless, low prices and a lack of market induced little change in the fundamental nature of the art. If there was no market for their particular expression, the artists would cease carving rather than change. Certainly, for the formative period of Inuit art created between 1948-c.1995, what I now consider to be the “Classic Period”, once a community aesthetic was in place it would remain largely as it was. 


1 While I specify many Ihalmiut artists here, the area is shared with other peoples who have contributed to the artistic output of the Kivalliq region and were largely dependent on caribou and its related culture, such as the Padlei-miut, Tasiujarmiut and Hauniqturmiut.

2 Other notable figures include Marc Alikaswa (1928-2008), John Attok (1906-1980), Joy Kiluvigyuak Hallauk, Luke Hallauk, Mary Kahootsuak Miki (1920-1993) and Margaret Uyauperq Aniksak (1905-1993).

3 On a 1982 research trip, I brought a selection of small-scale minimalist sculpture to Naujaat (Repulse Bay), including pieces by John Kavik and Andy Miki. When I showed the works to artists and their families, they invariably induced smiles and even a bit of gentle laughter, accompanied by references to children.

4 George Swinton, “Memories of Eskimo Point 1967–1979,” in Eskimo Point: Arviat, Bernadette Driscoll and George Swinton. (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1982), 14.

5 Exceptions include the exquisitely rendered caribou of Jacob Irkok (1937-2009) and Henry Isluanik and bears by Andy Mamgark (1930-1997), which can all be characterized by their well defined flowing forms.

6 Norman Zepp, Pure Vision: The Keewatin Spirit, (Regina: The MacKenzie Art Gallery, 1986), 41.

7 Ayaq’s early work is not unlike that of Tutsweetok and some influence is likely, though Tutsweetok was quite protective of her style.

Feature was first published in the Spring 2017 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.

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