• Feature

Why Are Joe Boats so Expensive?

Apr 26, 2021
by Norman Zepp

In 2019, Migration Boat, a sculpture by celebrated Nunavimmiuk artist Joe Talirunili (1906–1976), sold for $408,000 at auction, breaking the record for a work of art made by an Inuit artist [1]. “Joe Boats,” as the series of sculptures is colloquially called, have long been among the most valued pieces of Inuit art, and the prices they command have been steadily rising. In this Feature, an art historian and curator considers the aesthetic draw these pieces have on percipient collectors of Inuit art.

Joe Talirunili was born near Puvirnituq, Nunavik, QC, on the east coast of Hudson Bay at the turn of the 20th century. The communities of Inukjuak and Puvirnituq were visited by James Houston in the late 1940s and by the ’50s many Inuit like Talirunili and his cousin Davidialuk Alasua Amittu (1910–1976) had become avid carvers. By all accounts, Talirunili was warm and open, a unique, colourful character and consummate storyteller, all of which contributed to his fame. Initially, Talirunili’s sculptures largely featured single figure images of people, birds and animals. His earliest boats appeared in the 1960s and the popularity of this subject meant that it would be continuously visited throughout his career right up to his death in 1976 [2].


Joe Talirunili
The People Takatak, Kinuajuk and Kanavalik (1960s–1970s) Graphite, felt pen and wax crayon 46 × 61.1 cm

The steatite Talirunili used, found in many Nunavik locales, is a dense soft stone that lends itself to highly detailed realism. The stone allows for fully carved figures featuring such details as carefully incised fingernails, hair and eyes. The result was an unprecedented degree of naturalism that became known as “POV realism,” named after Puvirnituq (then known as Povungnituk, or “POV”). Highly skilled artists, like Aisa Qupirualu Alasua (1916–2003) and Charlie Sivuarapik (1911–1968), convincingly depicted all aspects of daily life from single figures to more complicated hunting and camp scenes, and stories and legends. Talirunili worked within this tradition, but his efforts generally lacked the technical proficiency shown by many of his peers and this, surprisingly, lay at the heart of his eventual fame. Talirunili’s arm was severely injured owing to a rifle incident in his youth, and no doubt limited his level of craftsmanship and was behind much of the accidental breakage that occurred while he carved. This misfortune also caused him a lifetime of pain, contributing to the Romantic notion of a struggling artist determined to tell his story: 

Although many times it hurts me when I am working, I still keep on going. But now that I am getting old it seems that every year it hurts me more and more all by itself, even when I am not using it. [3]


Joe Talirunili
Migration Boat (early–mid 1970s) Stone, skin, wood and thread 27.9 × 38.1 × 17.8 cm

Talirunili’s works are seldom highly polished; his are simple and straightforward figures. Facial features are rudimentary and stylized, while hands are often replaced with drilled holes and thus avoid the need to depict fingers. They are, nevertheless, often generously embellished by such implements as a harpoon, rifle, knife or ulu rendered in stone, wood, antler or ivory. His standing human figures, along with his dozens of bird carvings (particularly of owls), are avidly collected and are indeed worthy. That said, the apex of Talirunili’s artistic prowess is his incomparable large boats that possess an authority, a “presence” not found in his smaller efforts, and have come to define much of the artist’s career. 

To include Talirunili in an issue devoted to the concept of water is most appropriate. Like many communities across Inuit Nunangat, all Nunavimmiut communities are situated on the coastline and the sea continues to feature heavily in the lived experiences of Inuit. Like most Inuit, the livelihood of Nunavimmiut was, and still is, largely based on marine mammals. The hunting of seal, as with the walrus and beluga, meant that life on the ice and travel on the sea, in kayaks and larger umiat, was a given [4]. A discussion of the many accounts of legendary sea creatures and spirits, such as the sea goddess Nuliajuk that dominate the traditional belief system is beyond the scope of this writing, but they underline the sea’s pervasiveness in the life and culture of most Inuit.


Joe Talirunili
The Migration (c. 1975) Stone, wood, hide and thread 29.2 × 26.7 × 8.9 cm

Inuit have always been very seasonally mobile. During his life, Talirunili and his community members would trek great distances on land between hunting and fishing camps. Such travels, however, were surpassed by the distance entire communities travelled between the mainland and various islands of Hudson’s Bay, and even between the northern coast of Quebec and Baffin Island. Talirunili’s record-setting Migration Boat underscores the difficulties and hazards of ocean travel by a large group of people in a skin boat propelled by sail and oars.

Storytelling is a feature that contributes to the broad appeal of Talirunili’s work and none is as compelling as his recounting of an actual near-death experience that provides much of the subject for his large “migration” boats. While on a spring hunting expedition, a large ice floe broke apart beneath Talirunili and some 40 members of his community. With the ice pan breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, survival itself necessitated the hasty assembling of a boat. Talirunili recounts this catastrophic incident in a syllabic text accompanying one of his drawings:

Yesterday they lost the means to survive. So they began to make more again. The men’s wives began to sew the sealskins. They sewed and sewed for a very long time without ever stopping, just working away. They did not want people to die in the water near the ice, in the wild where there are large channels of water. [5] 


 Joe Talirunili
Joe’s Escape (c. 1970) Graphite 27.9 × 20.9 cm

A most tenuous craft was constructed by employing material salvaged from tents and qamutiit once used for the now abandoned seal hunting expedition. Under these circumstances this would have been a most unsound assemblage and the harrowing journey to safety that followed was anything but a migration. In spite of this, we continue to label Talirunili’s large boats as such. This misnomer is understandable in light of the fact that the boats Talirunili has depicted appear more in keeping with actual seaworthy umiat than a remnant of a disaster. Nevertheless, these works are full of direct references to the survival story, such as the inclusion of the artist as a passenger, a man holding a rifle or a sail featuring a stitched patch. 


Joe Talirunili
Joe’s Escape (c. 1970) Stone and wood 11.4 × 19.1 × 6.4 cm

Migration Boat, like more than a dozen others in the series, reveals a craft filled to the brim with people including mothers and children. Several figures seated along the outside hold oars that contrast with the stone and create a pleasing repetitive pattern. Some individuals are reduced to a series of heads nestled beneath the rowers’ arms. All are crowded together in a mass of tightly interlocking forms. The lead figure holds a rifle; a significant feature in the storytelling that noted how the survivors were allowed to finally reach safety only after their lone rifle was fired at the shore, thus enabling a physical and spiritual connection with their salvation. The addition of a kayak on board is an unusual feature, though they were at times carried in the larger umiat. With few exceptions, Talirunili’s larger craft feature sails, sometimes two. In Migration Boat, the crafted wooden mast and hide sail offers vertical, horizontal and diagonal tension. Their similarity in colour and texture to the wooden oars offers a pleasing visual unity. String is used for the stitching and rigging. The rounded oval shape of the hull is itself a self-contained pleasing shape possessing a kind of rough elegance. A tag labelled JOE is affixed to the bow as testament to at least some artistic ego. 

The fact that any voyage in the usually overloaded umiaq was a highly precarious undertaking also contributes to a dramatic reading. A sense of impending doom is heightened by the depiction of a diminutive figure amongst the travellers—Talirunili himself as a child—effectively adding a personal connection that very much is part of the appeal. This small figure becomes an almost heroic symbol as he and the others silently endure hardship and danger. Our knowledge of the tragedy along with the inclusion of some of the story’s narrative elements adds a strong emotional charge.


Joe Talirunili
Migration Boat (early-mid 1970s) Stone, wood, hide and thread 34.3 × 31.1 × 17.8 cm

Through interviews, most artists working during what I refer to as the Classic Period (c. 1950–1990) emphasize that their art was not produced simply for material advantage, as some may assume owing to initial marketing initiatives: 

“It is not only for money that we carve...What we show in our carving is the life we have lived in the past right up to today. We show the truth.” – Paulosie Kasadluak [6]

“As long as I am able, I like to be a sculptor, this is what I like best. I would also like my son to live where I live. Maybe he too could become a sculptor and find happiness as I found.” – John Tiktak [7]


Joe Talirunili
Migration (c. 1965) Stone, bone, gut and sinew 22 × 30.2 × 14.8 cm

The need for Talirunili and many of his contemporaries to tell their own stories, to show things as they were, as they knew, was an identity maintaining mechanism reaffirming past ways and traditions and the continuation of strongly held values. The production of Inuit art, then as now, is an act of cultural affirmation countering an overwhelming acculturative wave that subsumed so much of the past’s rich traditions and way of life. Indeed, from the beginning, a major appeal of Inuit art to collectors is that it addresses a desire for the “exotic”; a Romantic longing for the distant past and faraway places that continues to this day. Because of this, Talirunili’s boats in particular have thus become complex metaphors. 

For the most part, Talirunili, though highly creative, was untutored and not concerned with the meaning of art as it is understood in the South. There is an intuitive almost instinctual awareness of the potential of line and form, the use of mass, pattern and negative and positive space in Talirunili’s work. Its immediacy and directness depicts a refreshing honesty and reflects a confidence that his creations have real meaning; a belief that what is self-evident is undeniable.


Joe Talirunili
Story About Hunters Lost in Icebergs While Hunting Seals (1975) Stonecut 62.2 × 70.1 cm

There remains a particular determinant for the strong market demand and high prices paid for these—connoisseurship, an elite concept that rests on the quest for quality, the finest of art. The artist’s inspired and convincing formal resolution of a timeless and universal image satisfies this requirement. This is a privileged pursuit to be sure, but one that fuels the record sales. Many connoisseurs would agree that any “serious” collection of Inuit sculpture must include a “Joe Boat” as do, for example, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and the stellar Sarick and Klamer collections now at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Owing to the popularity of these boats, they are often on display at these institutions, underpinning their appeal and importance. Someone paid $408,000 for Migration Boat because there are so few available and a knowledgeable collector wanted to own one of the best—a fitting testament to an artist whose work should be considered some of the finest sculpture, on par with that created from anywhere and from anytime. In the end, the artist’s personality, time and place, materials and technique, narrative sophistication and the unique nature of the artwork accounts for the broad and lasting appreciation of Talirunili’s boats. 


1 This sculpture did not attain its lofty price out of the blue. As early as 2004 a large Joe Boat sold at auction for $140,000. In 2012 a large Joe Boat sold for $290,000 and another sold for $259,600 in 2016. In addition, two large boats were recently sold through a private gallery in the range of $200,000, one of which was acquired by a large corporate collection. These sales records reflect the fact that, of the approximately two dozen larger boats made, most now reside in public and corporate collections and thus are very unlikely to return to the commercial market. 

2 Joe Talirunili, Joe Talirunili: a grace beyond the reach of art, ed. Marybelle Mitchell (Montreal: Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec, 1977), 4. 

3 Ibid, 20. 

4 An umiaq is a large skin boat (ideally made from the tough hide of the walrus) made for the purpose of hauling a large number of people. These were propelled by paddles or, in some cases, a sail. Although several combined families would employ these crafts to move up the coast or even to islands to reach summer hunting and fishing camps, these ventures were not usually “migrations” as such. The presence of a large number of women on board (often paddling) has resulted in these craft being called a “women’s” boat. 

5 Ingo Hessel, “I Am an Inuit Artist,” in Inuit Modern, ed. Gerald McMaster (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2011), 113. 

6 Paulosie Kasadluak, “Nothing Marvellous,” in Port Harrison/Inoucdjouac (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1976), 21.

7 Artist quote from George Swinton, “Touch and the real: contemporary Inuit aesthetics – theory, usage and relevance,” in Art in Society (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1978), 76.

This Feature was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.


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