Surreal and Stunning: Inuit Fantastic Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery

By Robyn Jeffrey on September 08, 2014


Eli Sallualu Qinuajua (Puvirnituq, 1937–2004), Spirit, c. 1968, stone, 27.3 x 28.3 x 11.1 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Twomey Collection, with appreciation to the Province of Manitoba and Government of Canada, 1967.71. Photo: Ernest Mayer, WAG

It looks as if it has sprung out of a strange dream and onto the pedestal. Frog-like with bulging eyes and long hind legs, Eli Sallualu Qinuajua’s Spirit is the first extraordinary creature that you encounter upon entering Inuit Fantastic Art, an exhibition currently on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Qinuajua’s Spirit won first prize in a 1967 sculpture competition that encouraged carvers in Puvirnituq — a community in Nunavik, northern Quebec — to let their imaginations loose. The result? A number of carvers responded with works of a fantastic, surreal nature, free of the usual constraints that came along with producing work for the commercial art market.

Now, some 40 years later, Inuit Fantastic Art looks at the “school” of Surrealist art inspired by that contest, as well as other sculptures, prints, and drawings by Inuit artists who have mined the subconscious to create stunning, sometimes fearsome, works.

“These come out of oral and visual traditions, and particularly the idea in shamanism that everything has a soul,” says Darlene Coward Wight, the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Curator of Inuit Art. “If the soul isn’t treated in a proper way when animals and people die, then it becomes a very dangerous spirit.”


Qaqaq Ashoona (Cape Dorset, 1928–1996), Spirit, 1962, stone. 27 x 14.1 x 13 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; The Ian Lindsay Collection; Acquired with funds from the Volunteer Committee to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, G-85-308. Photo: Ernest Mayer, WAG

That element of danger is evident in other carvings by Qinuajua, such as 1978’s Spirits — which seems to depict an arm reaching out of the ground to grab hold of another being — as well as in the work of Cape Dorset artists, which also figure prominently in the exhibition. Described as a “bizarre group of sculptures” created in the early 1960s, the Cape Dorset works often combine a range of animal, human, and completely imaginary forms. Take Qaqaq Ashoona’s 1962 sculpture, for example. It consists of an upright clawed Spirit who appears to be in the midst of a meal you wouldn’t want to interrupt.

As Wight notes, however, the fantastic carvings are part of traditions common not only to the Canadian Arctic, but also to the entire Arctic region, from Siberia to Greenland. Indeed, some of the standout works in the exhibition include a series of small-scale, but powerfully rendered sculptures from eastern Greenland. Called tupilaqs, Wight characterizes them as harmful spirits created by a shaman out of bones and skin, brought to life through magical changes, and sent to kill one’s enemy.

The sculptures in Inuit Fantastic Art are surrounded by an equally bold and compelling display of graphic works by Baker Lake artists Ruth Annaqtuusi Tulurialik, Simon Tookoome, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, Janet Kigusiuq, Myra Kukiiyaut, Irene Avaalaaqiaq Tiktaalaaq, and Françoise Oklaga, all of whom also have works in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.


Simon Tookoome (Baker Lake, 1934–2010), Shaman, 1971, graphite, coloured pencil on paper. 75.2 x 57.8 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; The Swinton Collection, G-76-855. Photo: Ernest Mayer, WAG

Often shamanic in origin, and depicting humanoids and other mythological figures, the Baker Lake works embody many of the same surreal tendencies as the exhibition’s three-dimensional art. Tookoome, for example, is known to put visions from his dreams into his art.

“In viewing the show, you can begin to understand the reality of the spirit world that the Inuit lived within,” says Wight, who also notes that Inuit Fantastic Art seems to be expanding peoples’ notions of Inuit art beyond hunting scenes or polar bears. “People are surprised when they see these works, because it is not what is expected,” she says, adding that, “of course, they then want to know where these things come from.”

Inuit Fantastic Art is on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until October 12, 2014.

By Robyn Jeffrey| September 08, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Robyn Jeffrey

Robyn Jeffrey

Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.

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