We get to witness whalebone transformed into an Inuit story, with songs and reverence.
As a child, Manasiah Akpaliapik didn’t have many toys to play with. He grew up in the far north and his time playing was spent on blocks of ice with a carving knife. He carved figures from the stories he heard from his grandparents.
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. Back in the day, watching, asking no questions, and trying and trying was the only way. At the age of twelve, he was sent to residential school in Iqaluit, where the Inuit language, Inuktitut, and traditional beliefs were restricted. Like Indians in the south, the Inuit were punished for speaking their language.
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 both 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. In the south Manasie got lost in the tailspin of mourning his loss. He was despondent and depressed. He stopped carving for a period.
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 stories. He realized that was his calling, to tell the stories of the vast history of his family and his people. He wanted to give back.
Akpaliapik evolved his cultural responsibility devoting 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 where he developed a new relationship, a common-law relationship, with Geralyn Wraith, a makeup artist. They lived in a house in Toronto and they had a son together and named him 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.
Documentary director, Jeff Bear, was thrilled at being a witness to a whale bone being transformed into a work of art comparing the work to an event of great magnitude. He describes what they saw.
“When our documentary crew showed up on his doorstep in Cobourg, Ontario, Manasie was expecting a whale bone that was to be shipped from the north. Manasie told us that the whale bone is often more than 50 years old and can weigh thousands of pounds. In order to get a whale bone to Ontario, the skull must be picked up at some harbour in the north. A barge then brings the bones to St John’s NFLD. From there it often comes by transport truck. One can imagine the costs of bringing raw materials to the south.
So, we worked it out that we would film him as the transformation takes place. He begins by circling the skull many times, turning it over and sideways until he begins to see a figure, a story, a dream. He then throws himself into a dizzying schedule of days where he hardly takes a break and says nothing to us. We observed like little children mesmerized by his magical skills.”
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 teaching 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 of 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