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RecensionsBook Reviews

NASBY, Judith, 2002 Irene Avaalaaqiaq: Myth and Reality, Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 128 pages.

  • Deborah Kigjugalik Webster

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Corps de l’article

Irene Avaalaaqiaq: Myth and Reality by Judith Nasby is about the life and art of Baker Lake artist Irene Avaalaaqiaq. This book combines the artist’s life history with historical accounts by ethnologists. Twenty-eight art works including wall hangings, prints and colour pencil drawings are presented with the author’s interpretations.

Baker Lake artists are well-known for their prints, sculpture and wall hangings and several catalogues featuring Baker Lake art have been published. Biographies or retrospectives about Baker Lake artists have been written about Jessie Oonark (Blodgett and Bouchard 1986), Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (Moore 1986) and now Irene Avaalaaqiaq (Nasby 2002). Ruth Annaqtuusi Tulurialik (Tulurialik and Pelly 1986) and Simon Tookoome (Tookoome with Oberman 1999) have each co-authored a book about their art and stories while to this day, Armand Tagoona is perhaps the only Baker Lake artist and author to have his name appear alone on the front cover of his book (see Tagoona 1975). Nasby’s book is comparable to those Inuit art books that provide a greater emphasis on history.

An example of how Nasby presents one of the 28 art works in this book is her discussion about a wall hanging titled “Woman Alone” (plate 12). The art work and the artist’s depictions are described and some of the artist’s commentaries are included. Themes in the artist’s work are touched upon and the artist recalls seeing an ijiraq, a caribou that can speak like a human. Further comments by the artist not already incorporated in the text about the plates are in Appendix 1: Information about Plates.

The remainder of the book includes appendices which are additional quotes by the artist about her art works; “Exhibitions and Honours” listing solo and select group exhibitions; and an Honorary Degree citation by the Dean of Arts of the University of Guelph; as well as an address by Irene Avaalaaqiaq at the University of Guelph convocation.

From cover to cover the colour illustrations are, of course, central. The Macdonald Stewart Art Centre at the University of Guelph commissioned nine art works for their collection. These art works were featured with some of Avaalaaqiaq’s other works in a solo exhibition and are featured in this book. The selection of photographs cannot be overlooked. There are early photographs of the small community of Baker Lake, an embroidered cloth bag collected in 1922 with motifs similar to Avaalaaqiaq’s stitch, Avaalaaqiaq’s adoptive father Siksigaq in 1950, to current photographs of Avaalaaqiaq the hunter, and Avaalaaqiaq posing in front of her favourite wall hanging.

Like most other books on Inuit art, a general map is included. Avaalaaqiaq’s birthplace is shown on the map, but places mentioned such as Qingaugattuaq where Avaalaaqiaq fell into the water, Mallery Lake and Timanaqtuarjuk where Avaalaaqiaq used to live, a river crossing at Anitguq, and Qiqitarjualik where Avaalaaqiaq and her family travelled, are places not indicated on the map. Either a description of the locations mentioned or a map indicating these places is important for the reader who wants a better sense of where Avaalaaqiaq travelled and what cultural group she belongs to.

The only chapter in this book is entitled “Where Myth and Reality Intersect.” The author states that “Avaalaaqiaq’s art is grounded within the realm of storytelling and her life’s experience. Myth and reality intersect as she translates multi-layered stories, transformation scenes, and personal memories into bold graphic imagery” (p. 3). Nasby is careful to quote the artist in saying that Avaalaaqiaq’s art is based on stories her grandmother used to tell her. “[She] did them out of memory” (p. 33). Indeed the stories depicted in her art are not “myth” to Avaalaaqiaq, but her reality. As Norman Zepp explain: “What we call the ‘imaginary’ in literature—the supernatural, fantastic, magical, marvellous; apparition, vision, dream, hallucination; grotesque combinations of human and non human—was simply not seen as “imagined” by the ancestors of today’s Inuit; and even now, some Inuit continue to believe in the spirit creatures of old” (Zepp 1986: 22 in Moore 1986: 6). Avaalaaqiaq is sure she saw an ijiraq, knows that animals used to talk, people could transform, some inuksuit are human-like and the Tuniit were giants. Had the artist been given the opportunity to name the exhibition and this book, one wonders what title would she have given them and if the term “myth” would have been used.

Further discussion about the artist’s identity is needed. The meaning of the artist’s name is discussed; “The word Avaalaaqiaq in Inuktitut means “willow,” making this unusual stitch her symbolic signature. The stitch also signifies her powerful attachment to the land and its nurturing powers that she relied on in the early years of her life” (p. 39). Again Nasby points out that “Although Avaalaaqiaq also signs her name in Inuktitut using syllabic characters, the willow signature motif serves as a metaphor for her identity. The willow thicket reminds her of her homeland, her loving grandmother who raised her, and the loss of the ancient culture associated with her homeland” (p. 44). While the examination of the willow signature motif is valuable, what is missing is an explanation about who Avaalaaqiaq was named after and why. To Inuit this is more important than the meaning of a name. It is Inuit custom to name a child after a deceased relative to endow the child with some of the qualities and spirit of the deceased. Avaalaaqiaq was named after her father’s (Itiblui’s) mother (Elizabeth Quinangnaq, pers. comm. 2004). In her own words, Avaalaaqiaq explains that she follows this custom and named her first daughter Siksigaq after her adoptive father (p. 83). Understanding who Avaalaaqiaq was named after is important because it might offer further insight into both her and her art.

It is interesting to note what name the artist uses to sign her work. In Appendix 1: Information about Plates, the author states that “All works bear Avaalaaqiaq’s Inuktitut signature in syllabics: forme: forme pleine grandeur” (p. 84). This translates to “Irene Avaalaaqiaq.” However, many of the works that appear in the book are signed forme: forme pleine grandeur or forme: forme pleine grandeur which translate to the artist’s Christian name “Irene” while some are not signed at all and none are signed in the manner stated above. In other works not presented in this book, the artist’s signature in Inuktitut syllabics include; Irene, Avaalaaqiaq, Irene Avaalaaqiaq Baker Lake and Irene Tiktaalaaq.

Utkuhikhalingmiut who occupied the territory north of Baker Lake are mentioned while the Qaingnirmiut, who like Avaalaaqiaq come from the south and west of Baker Lake, are not mentioned once. Ethnologist Kaj Birket-Smith, whose research is cited in this book, does not regard the people from the north as “Caribou Inuit.” “There was little interaction between the northern and southern groups. This explains why Birket-Smith did not include the northern groups in the Caribou Eskimo population centred at Baker Lake, for at the time of the Fifth Thule Expedition many of the people in the Baker Lake region had not even seen an Utkuhikhalingmiuq or a Hailingnayokmiuq” (Birket-Smith 1929 in Vallee 1967, quoted p. 22). The author quotes artist Simon Tookoome and his recollections of the mid 1950s starvation period (p. 25), artist William Noah’s memory of starvation and the Oonark family’s decision to take up permanent residency in Baker Lake (p. 26). However, both Simon Tookoome and William Noah come from the area approximately 200 kilometres northwest of Baker Lake (p. 37).

There is only one mention of artist Ruth Tulurialik and none of George Tataniq who are from the Kazan River located south of Baker Lake where Avaalaaqiaq is from. While it is important to compare Avaalaaqiaq’s art works with other Baker Lake artists for example, Avaalaaqiaq’s use of the double head in “Imagination Visions” that also appears in Simon Tookoome’s art, to discuss fellow female artist Ruth Annaqtuusi Tulurialik who comes from the same cultural group would only enhance the book. In her book Qikaaluktut:Images of Inuit Life, Ruth Annaqtuusi Tulurialik (1986) does mention “hungry people.” She recalls stories about people arriving in the settlements from the camps in 1958 during a starvation period.

In the preface, Nasby notes Avaalaaqiaq taped her memoirs in 1999, 2000 and 2001. “Editing was done by the author for consideration of clarity and length, while every attempt was made to retain the character of Avaalaaqiaq’s speech” (p. vii). It is obvious that some quotes were cut and pasted. An example of this occurs in the beginning of the book where the artist is quoted: “I try to keep our culture alive through my art. Art is a way to preserve our culture. Most of the stories and legends had a moral to them and we would use the values taught to us in our everyday life” (p. 8). This excerpt was taken from the “Address by Irene Avaalaaqiaq at the University of Guelph Convocation” (pp. 111-112) but the preceding and following paragraphs have been taken from a different interview or interviews.

In closing, Irene Avaalaaqiaq’s life history presented in this book was very riveting to read. As a fellow Baker Laker, I have a renewed respect for this remarkable woman who overcame many challenges. I also have a much deeper appreciation of Avaalaaqiaq’s art. Avaalaaqiaq said: “[…] the people down South, who purchase art, would understand the wall hangings, drawings, and carvings better if the stories about them were written down so they could understand” (p. 74). I believe that readers of this book will gain a better understanding of the artist and her art. For writing this book, Judith Nasby could be considered the subject of Irene Avaalaaqiaq’s wall hanging, a “helping spirit.”

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