We get to witness whalebone transformed into an Inuit story, with songs and reverence.
Manasie grew up in a family of artists. His father and mother, Lazaroosee and Nakyuraq Akpaliapik are both sculptors in the community of Arctic Bay. His adopted grandparents, artists Peter and Elisapee Kanangnaq Ahlooloo, and his maternal great aunt Paniluk Qamanirq began to teach him to carve when he was about ten years old. He learned to carve by watching them, and as they carved, the elders entertained Manasie with Inuit legends and stories.
He first learned to carve by watching his grandparents and his aunt. At the age of twelve, he was sent to residential school in Iqaluit, where the Inuit language, Inuktitut, and traditional beliefs were restricted.
This had a profound impact on Akpaliapik, who rebelled by leaving school at age sixteen. He married a young woman from his home community, named Noodloo, and moved back to Arctic Bay where they raised two children.
Tragically, his wife and their children died in a house fire in 1980 while he was away working on the oilrigs. Akpaliapik was devastated and left the north at the age of twenty-four to move to Montreal.
Alcohol almost consumed him until he began sculpting again, learning how to use new tools and media and how to create intricate detailing. It helped that he lived with a group of sculptors at the time.
Akpaliapik was dedicated to growing his artistic abilities and attended Red River College in Winnipeg, MB before participating in an apprenticeship in Montreal, QC. Akpaliapik’s early sculptures were highly detailed and representational but as his technical skills increased his style evolved to include more depictions of Inuit legends and myths
Akpaliapik began to learn more about Inuit culture that reveals itself in his artwork.
Akpaliapik has also invested much of his time giving carving workshops in the North and in the South. He explains in an interview for The National Gallery of Canada: “Everything that I’m doing is trying to capture some of the culture, about my traditions, simple things like hunting, wearing traditional clothing, harpoons, using legends. I feel that the only way we can preserve the culture is if people can see it.”
He lived in Montreal for five years and then moved to Ontario with his second wife, Geralyn Wraith, a makeup artist. Their house is on Six Nations land in Couberg and is used mainly by Akpaliapik as a studio retreat.
Akpaliapik’s wife is half Ojibwa and half-Irish; he is permitted to set up house on land usually reserved for Six Nations people. Living there has convinced Akpaliapik that Inuit and Indigenous people are similar: he sees the similarity in how they see nature and the land and the weather.
They have a son, named Kiviuq, whom he named after an Odysseus-like figure in Inuit folklore who travels the universe on a series of life-affirming journeys.
His story, says Akpaliapik, in an interview with Deidre Kelly. “gives us a different window on different situations and different problems. Many people, when you are stuck in life, think of this legend to get some ideas as to how to get free. Also, I’m so far down here and I guess I just felt that it was an appropriate name for my son because it tells him who he is and where he comes from.”
Manasie’s main medium is whalebone but, in addition to whalebone, Akpaliapik’s materials include caribou antler, narwhal tusk and polar bear bone.
Although he has often come into conflict with U.S. export restrictions governing whalebone and other ivories, Akpaliapik stresses that the natural materials he uses come from animals that died in the wild.
He also sculpts in limestone, alabaster and Italian marble. However, he prefers animal materials because they have shapes that inspire ideas and because they strengthen ties linking his art to his roots that keep him in touch with Mother Nature.
One of his pieces in the National Gallery is a sculpted portrait of a man gripping his head, eyes rolled back in their sockets, the mouth an open grimace of pain. Out of the top of the head rises a meticulously carved wine bottle. Akpaliapik says it is a self-portrait in an interview with Deidre Kelly: “And maybe I was hoping that if it comes out in the art it will make people realize that it [alcoholism] is their problem too.
“A lot of time my art helps me cope with things,” Akpaliapik says. “Sometimes there are things that I can’t talk about, but it will come out in my art.”
His artwork, based on traditional Inuit Art, diverges into multi-dimensional stories of past, present and future, combining human stories with spirit stories.
Some of his pieces take months to complete. He is currently working on whalebone so large that the only way to get it to his workshop in Ontario was by ship and truck.
Like all true artists, he can see what is in the stone or bone before chiselling and sculpting into the shape it is to become.
His work is often a comment on social injustices towards Inuit people. He hopes to preserve these stories in stone and bone for younger generations to know who they are and where they come from. He is generous in his teachings of his craft and knowledge.
He has many awards, citations and accolades for his sculptures that sell in many galleries and museums. His sculptures take a place of pride in the largest Inuit Art Store in the country, in Montreal, Images Borealis.
The Inuit woman talking about Manasie Akpaliapik’s life and work in this episode is Dr. Heather Igloliorte, Inuit Art Historian at Concordia University, Faculty or Fine Arts in Montreal.
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario
Canadian Museum of Civilization, Hull, Quebec
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario
Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
Sarick Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario
Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg, Manitoba