Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Raw Material: Manasie Akpaliapik and Inua of the Seas

A detail from The Effects of Colonialization, Past and Present by Manasie Akpaliapik.

Manasie Akpaliapik has not had an easy time of it. An Inuit carver born in 1955 at a hunting camp north of Baffin Island, he suffered a devastating personal loss when his wife and young children died in a house fire nearly 40 years ago. He soon after used art to assuage the grief and alcohol to numb the pain. While his expressionistic carvings brought him a high degree of success (his work is in the permanent collections of Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada, in addition to other major national and international art institutions), the booze ended up dominating. By 2007, Akpaliapik, one of the greatest Inuit carvers of our time, was behind bars for disorderly conduct in a Southern Ontario jail, away from his people, away from his art.

But here’s the happy ending (so far). Akpaliapik is back. Now sober, the artist celebrated for his expressionistic handling of found raw materials like tusks, antlers and animal bone is once again carving whalebone – his material of choice – etching into its tough, tensile surface scenes from his troubled life. The most poignant of his pictorial self-portraits populate The Effects of Colonialization, Past and Present, a 72-by-65-by-30cm sculpture carved from a section of a 120-year-old bowhead whale skull.

A chiselled autobiography, the work forms the centerpiece of a powerful exhibition of whalebone and other natural materials at the Kipling Gallery in Vaughan, Ont., located about a 35-minute drive northwest of downtown Toronto. The exhibition opened in late November, attracting gallerists and collectors from as far away as Vancouver and Paris. It closes this week, on Dec. 14, and too soon. It’s a must-see show.

Inua of the Seas features not only long-awaited new work by Akpaliapik but pieces by other Inuit carvers of note as well, among them Billy Merkosak, Leo Angotigoar, Lukie Airut, Jaco Ishulutaq and the monumental Abraham Anghik Ruben, the Kipling Gallery’s star artist. Representational wall hangings, stone prints and paintings by both Inuit and First Nations artists (among them Irene Avaalaaqiaq, Norval Morrisseau and Steve Snake) supplement the carvings, contributing to the captivating mix of styles.

Another view of The Effects of Colonialization, Past and Present by Manasie Akpaliapik.

Akpaliapik’s images – no bigger than a silver dollar – float across the expanse of the whalebone to visually narrate a personal story of grief and hard-won redemption. One depicts Akpaliapik crawling on his knees in the snow while clutching a bottle of booze while another shows a long line of fellow Inuit filing into a tiny church with a large cross. In the foreground, and deeply gouged into the bone, is the artist behind bars. Then, in the upper right corner, a human hand giving the universal signal for stop and below it the curved figure of a whale, for centuries a staple and way of life for the original inhabitants of the Canadian North, suspended in the shadowy depths.

Akpaliapik has added an Inuit dancer carved out of Italian alabaster who regards the dramatic narrative unfolding around him with resignation and sadness. Akpaliapik’s sculptures are meant to be read in the round. He carves the bone both front and back. What appears behind the scenes is as important as what is presented up front. And it is on the rear of this piece that the artist’s personal journey is transformed into a spiritual quest. The intimate realism seen on the face of the sculpture here gives way to exaggerated images of an Inuit spirit guides who loom over a sculpted montage of whale flukes and fins. This crossing over to the other side motif is repeated elsewhere in Akpaliapik’s new body of work.

Ancient Traditional Inuit Cleansing Ceremony, also carved out of bowhead whalebone, concerns a shamanistic healing ritual with the artists, again, playing a central role. A naturally formed cavity in the bone, occurring close to what would have been the living whale’s blowhole, becomes in the artist’s hands a kind of inner chamber where soul retrieval, the term given to what shamans do for a person who has suffered a great trauma, is seen to be taking place. Usually in Inuit culture shamanistic practices are kept hidden from public view, at least from the eyes of the eyes of foreigners. Akpaliapik here uses his art to open a door, facilitating his return as an artist and a whole (that is, healed) man. 

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer on staff at The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1985 to 2017. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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