Joe Talirunili was a fisherman, hunter, guide, printmaker and sculptor from Puvirnituq, Nunavik, QC. Despite competing birthdate claims of 1883 and 1889 by different agencies, the artist himself has attributed the year of his birth in 1906. Talirunili’s storytelling abilities are undoubtedly his highest esteemed. When he “learned the power of paper,” he began using the material as a vehicle through which memories and information could be chronicled. He conveys these stories primarily through sculpture and print, by intricately weaving multi-layered narratives, and presenting many perspectives in the same frame.
Born just north of Kuujjuaraapik, Nunavik, QC, at the Neahungnik camp, Talirunili was immersed in the traditional way of life. He had the knowledge and skill suitable for facing the harsh reality of life on the land and relished the joy of catching seals with his bare hands and travelling by dog sleigh. His memories of camp life in the summer and winter seasons are recurring themes in Talirunili’s drawings and prints, which often make use of inscribed syllabics. Recording life in the Arctic as it was at the turn of the twentieth century was a primary artistic focus for Talirunili, who was compelled to chronicle stories of the past as a testimony to the old ways. He travelled across Nunavik, spending significant periods of his life in Inukjuak and Puvirnituq.
Talirunili's most famous pieces, a series of carved boats known as Joe's Boats or the Migration series, recall his childhood memory of a sea voyage across the Hudson Bay when returning home from his baptism. In their attempt to reach the mainland, the party was stymied by ice floes that seemed to be “fighting with each other” and were menaced by the threat of hunger and critical weather conditions while stranded on a glacial mass. They fashioned an umiak out of sealskin, string and wood from their sleighs to find their path to safety as the weather subsided. The artist’s use of found materials in this series includes hide, plastic, string and wood, which convey the ingenuity and instinct for creative improvisation necessary for survival.
The rugged aesthetic Talirunili favoured for his sculptures set them apart from the majority of those being produced from Puvirnituq at the time, which were increasingly being recognized for their “idealized, dreamlike quality,” smooth surfaces and fine details. Recurring images of owls and human figures are intermingled into complex compositions, often crudely executed, as though emphasizing the artist’s urgency and conviction for documenting his thoughts. Talirunili would often mend broken pieces of his sculpture by simply gluing them back on. This sense of immediacy in both material selection and execution are intuitive to the scenarios they depict, highlighting themes of resilience and endurance.
At a young age, Talirunili accidentally received a bullet in the arm. Although this injury affected his arm's mobility in later life, Talirunili was the most productive in the last 15 years of his career, when he reinterpreted the narrative of the Migration story through the creation of approximately 25 to 30 carvings. On June 10, 1971, Joe recorded the Migration story in writing and composed a list of 32 of the 40 occupants that he could remember being on the boat that day.
Talirunili was a co-founder of the Puvirnituq Co-operative with his cousin Davidialuk Alasua Amittu in 1960. He produced approximately 70 stonecut prints, many of which were included in the Puvirnituq annual print collection. Creating stonecuts by directly carving into the stone became a signature technique for Talirunili, who was typically uninterested in creating preliminary drawings.
Talirunili passed away on September 11, 1976. His legacy is carried out by his surviving artworks, which continue to be purchased at record prices. In 2012, The Migration (c. 1975) fetched a record-setting $290,000 at auction for the highest price ever paid for an Inuit art piece, a record that was only surpassed when Migration Boat (early to mid-1970s) sold for $408,000 in 2019. Talirunili's work has been included in over 30 exhibitions and was featured on a 14-cent Canadian stamp in 1976.