Inuvialuk artist Kyle Natkusiak Aleekuk likes to play around with traditional Inuit concepts and turn them on their heads to create new and unusual takes on ancient ideas. Mixing Inuit cultural themes with ancient Japanese woodcut and traditional American tattoo styles, Aleekuk creates unique modern art. In this special 5 Works, the artist tells us the inspiration behind each piece.
1. Somethin’ Stuck in My Teeth
Kyle Aleekuk Somethin’ Stuck in My Teeth (2020) Digital illustration© the artist
The artist noted that he’s always wanted to transform images of uluit and their many different uses into something interesting and unexpected. With Somethin’ Stuck in My Teeth, Aleekuk imagines a highly polished ulu used as a mirror. “Maybe she's cutting up some meat and a little got stuck in her teeth and there's no mirror around,” he laughs. The style is very heavily influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. As the grandson of renowned Ulukhaktuk printmaker Peter Aliknak Banksland, Aleekuk is very interested in the relationship between Inuit printmaking and Japanese woodblock printmaking. Both his grandfather and great-aunt Agnes Nanogak Goose were part of the original Holman Eskimo Co-operative artist scene in the mid-twentieth century.
2. High Kick
Kyle Aleekuk High Kick (2020) Digital illustration© the artist
Aleekuk muses that this image looks like his athlete is surfing on a wave. There is a lot of Japanese tattoo-style imagery layered into this piece. Aleekuk, who has previously discussed the importance of tattoo art in his practice, explains that the heavy black wind bars and the claw waves are very popular in the tattoo world. Early American tattoo flash (which is also a theme in Aleekuk’s work) was itself heavily influenced by Japanese tattooing. The subject’s pose emanates motion and an agility we are unused to seeing in most traditional art. Her physical skills and tattoo-covered skin, positioned in front of the imagery of raw, powerful waves, give off the impression she is a major BADASS.
3. Hard Water Angler
Kyle Aleekuk Hard Water Angler (2021) Digital illustration© the artist
Hard Water Angler (2021) is one of the artist’s favourite pieces, transforming traditional Japanese imagery and poses into images featuring Inuit elements. While flipping through old Japanese woodblock books that his father-in-law gave him, Aleekuk came up with the idea of replacing a paper fan with an ulu and a kimono with a long, fur-clad parka. This is a particularly beautiful piece because of Aleekuk’s colour palette and digital experimentation. Using surface filters and pale washes, the image appears as though it were a watercolour on canvas, providing a magnificent texture that is sometimes missing from novice digital artwork.
4. One Piece at a Time
Kyle Aleekuk One Piece at a Time (2021) Digital illustration© the artist
This iglu scene was made shortly after Aleekuk made Hard Water Angler, and you can see the experimentation with subject poses in both pieces. He examined the positioning of Japanese art subjects, attempting to relate them more to Inuit culture. The idea of a snow knife replacing a samurai sword, and substituting chunky clothing with fur and embroidered accents for intricate battle armour, all thrown in with his tattoo design style really makes you look twice! The outlines of the man, his clothing and the iglu in the background are highlighted with the signature bold lines of both Japanese block prints and tattoo art.
5. Melting Ice
Kyle Aleekuk Melting Ice (2021) Digital illustration© the artist
This final piece stands out from all five selections with its brown paper background mimicking the traditional rice paper of old Japanese prints. Aleekuk’s ice block also harkens back to his designs resembling the traditional Japanese and American styles of tattoo work that depict rocks and flowers with dramatic colour fades and gradients. The artist positioned this Inuk based on the popular design used in traditional American tattoos of a woman sitting on a pier dipping her toe into the water. Aleekuk is mesmerized by movement and draws his lines with deft fingers, capturing that motion on a still page.