After anxious moments, a late start and high humidity, the 16th edition of the First People’s Festival in Montreal finally got under way – and it was worth the wait.
The festival marked its grand opening with an exhibition by 11 Inuk artists from Inuvik on May 25. The vernissage was double headed as the Canadian Guild of Crafts is also celebrating its 100th year of existence.
This years’ display, entitled Metamorphosis, was aiming to be different right from the start. The sculptures the Guild had in its possession before this exhibit were small in size. But according to Curator Maurice Achard, “we asked our guests to create a second work of art, much more modest in scale in contrast to Metamorphosis, but just as important in quality. We wanted to establish the origins and evolution of contemporary Inuit art,” he said.
The sculptors used old Inuit lore to express themselves. In one piece by Inukjuak artist Lucassie Echalook that impresses with its size and detail, a large and very strong Inuk battles a giant, or, as they say in Inuktitut, a Tuniq. In another piece by Joanasi Jack Ittukallak, a Shaman mother and her children catch a seal, but without a knife or an ulu to strip the animal, they turn into bears to devour it.
The pieces range in price from a several hundred dollars to $13,000 and are available for purchase by the public.
Mattiusi Iyaituk from Inujivik was one of the more prominent artists on display. His work included a visually interesting sculpture of owls, which are all connected as one and can only be differentiated through their eyes.
His best creation, however, is “an Angakoq (Shaman) with skinny arms is possessed by the animals of the sea,” according to the description.
Made of soapstone with caribou antlers as arms, and various other materials, including serpentine, fur around its neck and a musk ox horn, the sculpture grabs your attention immediately for its beauty and for its quirky look. It is Inuit art, but not like anything we’re used to seeing.
Iyaituk explained his work of art to the Nation. “Shaman were the leaders in my culture before Christianity,” he said. “When Christianity was introduced to my culture, Shamanism was banned, so it went underground. That part of my culture has disappeared, so I try to keep it alive by doing Shamanic sculptures.
“When I was 14 I did my first sculpture with a piece of stone that came from my older brothers’ work,” said Iyaituk. “I picked it up and worked on it and happened to sell it for $2.”
Iyaituk, 55, said that in the early days, becoming an artist was not something he thought he would do. “Before becoming an artist, I was a policeman. My father had a heart condition and the doctor told him not to make him worry about me. So I quit my job so he wouldn’t worry. Then my only option was to become an artist. In 1980 I had my first solo exhibition in San Francisco.”
Iyaituk has exhibited his work in many places around the world, including Taiwan, Mexico, the former West and East Germany and Switzerland.
The most he has earned by selling his art was $10,000 for an installation of work, which contained several pieces in the same theme. That display depicted the four seasons and was made in a school in Nunavik.
Iyaituk’s work is on display in permanent exhibitions across the country, including the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Museum of Fine Arts in Montreal and the Museums of Civilization in Quebec City and Ottawa.
His advice for aspiring Michelangelos out there is to show some pizazz. “If you want to be an artist, you can do it. Don’t put yourself down and think you can’t. You don’t know what you can do until you try,” he said. “Find a different form of artwork. Don’t do your work like everyone else is doing; make it distinct.”
Iyaituk said he only keeps little pieces of his artwork as mementos for his wife of 32 years.
After a presentation from the various heads of the festival and the Guild, the audience was treated to something special. Two young Inuk throat singers took the stage and dazzled everyone with their awesome esophagi.
Akinisie Sivuarapik has been throat singing for 18 years, since she was 6. She told the Nation that it means a lot for her to continue her grandmother’s tradition.
“My mother never really did it,” she said. “It was kind of lost for a generation in our family so my grandmother really wanted me to learn.”
She talked about the days of old when Inuit women would use throat singing as a means to compete for various things such as clothing or other materials.
“To me throat singing represents the earth, the water, the animals, everything,” said Sivuarapik, who hails from Puvirnituq, but currently lives in Montreal.
Festival President Andre Dudemaine was elated at the turnout. “I’m very happy to see so many people and I’m looking forward to the rest of the festival.”
Metamorphosis will be on display at the Canadian Guild of Crafts at 1460 Sherbrooke Street West until June 30. The First People’s Fest runs until the end of June as well, for more information check out www.nativelynx.ca.