After venturing out from their home community of lgloolik to hunt caribou and fetch relatives from an outpost camp, carver Lukie Airut and filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk take a detour through the frozen Fury and Hecla Strait, a narrow channel that runs between Baffin Island and the Melville Peninsula. Airut suddenly revs his Ski-Doo snowmobile engine and bolts ahead, disappearing in the dim December light.
Kunuk’s eyes widen as he searches the growing darkness for his companion. It is unlike Airut to abandon a fellow hunter in this harsh climate, 320 kilometres north of Canada’s Arctic Circle. Kunuk leans on his accelerator. Before long, he spots the flame of a cooking stove, and above it the grinning face of Airut, who is known for his practical jokes.
The caribou stew is delicious. “Of all the hunters I have gone out with, he is the best cook and friendly, laughing all the time,” Kunuk says.
For Inuit, finding reasons to laugh seems instinctual, a means to deal with adversity and diffuse stress in the unforgiving arctic environment. As lnuvialuit carver Abraham Anghik Ruben says, “You always have to be alert to danger, so you’re always looking for ways to keep your spirits up.”
Airut, a small man with a full head of gray hair and a taut, muscular body that appears to be spring-loaded for action, thrives in the wilderness. Born in 1942 at an outpost camp on Baffin Island’s Alanarjuk Lake, he has spent much of his life hunting caribou, walrus, whale, seal and polar bear. On land and sea, he has honed his keen powers of observation and resourcefulness, two keys to survival in the eastern arctic desert.
Airut applies those same powers, along with uncommon dexterity and an artistic eye, to his carvings, crafting vivid figures and hunting scenes ranging in size from one-inch walrus teeth to massive bowhead whale skulls four feet long by three feet high.
“The ability of Inuit to create art came from the culture’s relationship to the land and the animals — their intimate knowledge of birds, bears, seals, walruses, muskoxen, wolves,” Ruben says. “The hunters had a natural knowledge of the animals’ anatomy. They knew the animals intimately — their habits and how they looked at different times of year — and could best portray them [in their art].”
As Inuit spend more time in towns and less time on the land, they inevitably lose the survival skills that have been passed down from generation to generation for millennia. “Now they can easily jump on their Ski-Doo, head out onto the land, shoot a caribou and come back later the same day,” Ruben observes.
Regardless of the season, whenever he is not carving Airut ventures out onto the land. His hunting trips sustain his family and help him maintain a deep connection with his environment, which in tum contributes to the exquisite craftsmanship and dynamism of his carvings. To his craft, he brings the patience of a seal hunter and the precision of a marksman.
“The detail in his work is absolutely incredible, even on the smallest pieces,” observes Darlene Wight, curator of Inuit art at The Winnipeg Art Gallery. “It reminds me of Manasie Akpaliapik’s carving.”
Renowned printmaker Germaine Arnaktauyok, a native of Igloolik and Airut’s cousin, concurs. Although she has not seen Airut since her last visit to the community eight years ago, she recently came across several of his walrus tusk carvings in Chicago and marvelled at his mastery of fine detail. “I thought they were extremely well done,” she says. “I was very impressed.”
Developing His Craft
Airut began carving stone and whale bone in 1962 at the age of 20, when he lived in Hall Beach. He learned the skill from his father, George Kappianaq, a carver who used only hand tools and traded his pieces with the Hudson’s Bay Company for sugar, tea or bullets for his .22-calibre rifle. Airut sold his early pieces to workers at the Dew Line site. Once he moved to lgloolik, he studied with artist Pacome Kolaut.
Like other Igloolik artists in the 1960s, Airut carved gray stone from a nearby quarry, leaving his finished carvings unpolished. Eventually, he focused on organic materials such as whale bone and walrus ivory. “I began collecting bowhead skulls from old sod houses,” he says. “I have probably carved over 100 skulls.” The walrus teeth, jawbones, tusks and heads come from his hunting trips. He occasionally carves soapstone or marble in the summer, when he can work outside. “In my little carving shack, working on stone, it’s too much dust,” he explains.
After completing a jewellery course at Nunavut Arctic College, Airut added another medium to his repertoire: crafting intricate miniature forms and figures in ivory, silver and gold.
A natural talent, Airut quickly developed into an accomplished artist. His work filtered through the Canadian Arctic’s cooperative system to galleries and museums in southern Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Even so, because Igloolik’s remote location remains off the beaten path for curators, gallery owners and collectors, Airut and his work have yet to receive the recognition they deserve.
Collections and exhibitions
A number of museums have Airut’s work in their permanent collections, including The Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the Eskimo Museum (Churchill), the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre (Yellowknife), and the University of Alberta (Edmonton).
The Isaacs/Inuit Gallery in Toronto (now closed) hosted two solo exhibitions of Airut’s carvings. In 1996, Circle of Life featured his walrus ivory and jawbone miniatures. In 1998, he was featured in a show entitled Traditional Shamanic Themes. Over the years, his work has been included in numerous other exhibitions in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan.
The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s five Airut carvings are representative of the broad scope of his work. Dream of Plenty, an early bowhead skull carving that Airut now considers crude, depicts the dream of a successful hunt. In a land where starvation is a daily threat, the anticipation of a successful hunt brings solace. Two massive walruses rise in an arc from either side of the skull. The hunters, harpoons drawn and poised for the kill, are dwarfed by their prey. The ancient dance of survival continues. Human and animal heads ring the base of this mythic piece, perched like sentinels facing away from the main action.
“In the past, before we got food from the stores, Inuit lived only by hunting animals,” Airut reflects. “Hunters used to hunt everything they see to try and survive, to keep their families from starving.”
Another skull, Owl with Drum Dancers, is dramatic in form and scale. From one perspective, it depicts two drummers, one on either side. From the opposite perspective, a massive owl, apparently evoked by the drummers’ performance, raises its wings high above the human figures, protecting their celebration.
Eagle Shaman, a finely detailed green soapstone carving, is a transformation piece. From one side, it has the face of a man; from the other, it is an eagle head, the neck morphing into a massive, powerful claw. Airut’s father was a shaman whose helping spirit was the eagle. “If a person had a spirit, it helped him travel to other communities,” Airut explains.
Another piece, Shaman with Earrings, is carved from a six-inch section of aged narwhal tusk that Airut dug up at the site of an old sod house during a hunting trip. With its antique rust and green patina, the figure seems ancient. Complex and finely wrought, it has two earrings, female forms carved from one-inch walrus teeth. The shaman’s face looks startled, trancelike. The oversized ears extend to three-quarters the length of the head.
Shaman Drum Dancer is carved from a walrus jawbone. In spite of the drum, the igloos and other traditional Inuit forms on each side of its bowed legs, the figure has a cowboylike appearance. Its broad face seems attentive, fully human. “Drum dances are important to the Inuit. People used to be happy when they did a drum dance,” he says.
Airut carved Hunter’s Camp in the spring of 2005 from a full walrus head, complete with tusks that angle inward, touching at the tips. “It’s a story about the culture, about a long time ago when people hunted and lived in a tent or an igloo they had built,” he says.
From every angle, the head and tusks tell a story — of life in camp, of dog teams used for travel, of animals being hunted, of daily implements (ivory combs and ulus, or women’s knives) found in camp. A bear spirit, two miniature bears and an inuksuk dominate the back of the skull. A bulging eye protrudes from either side of the skull, representing the spirit of the walrus.
“Airut carves in the round, so you can look at his pieces from every direction and find fascinating details,” Wight says. “Unlike many artists, he carves faces in great detail, with expressions.”
In addition to his sculptures and jewellery, Airut makes drums from caribou hide, tools, qamutiqs (sleds), boats and cabins. “He is gifted with his hands,” Kunuk observes. “We all make boxes for our sleds, but Lukie designs them [so they are] nice to look at. Almost everything he makes with his hands is interesting and beautiful.”
Filmmaker Norman Cohn, Kunuk’s partner at Igloolik lsuma Productions, who lives in Igloolik part-time, says of Airut, “He is one of the handful of people I’ve met in my life who is definitely a true artist.”
After investing his time and creative energy on his work, does Airut miss his sculptures once they leave lgloolik? Does he wonder where they’ve gone? “I forget about them,” he chuckles. “I don’t give a damn where they go.” He always has the next hunt, the next carving, to think about.
Is there anything Airut still longs to make? “I always wanted to make a chess board out of ivory, soapstone — all different things. A fancy one.”
Family and Community Activities
On any day of the year, if he is not carving or out on the land, one can find Airut working on his qamutiqs or other projects around the house. “I like to be active, to work on anything that needs to be done,” he says.
Members of his extended family stream in and out of his small house day and night. Airut’s wife, Marie, a seamstress, works by day in lgloolik’s social services office where, she says, “I look at sad faces all day.” The couple has 11 children, several of whom were adopted by others in the community according to Inuit custom. Mark, their eldest son, is a jewellery designer. The Airuts also adopted five more children (the youngest two are 7 years old) and have 15 grandchildren.
Others in the community gravitate to the bustling Airut household. “Even young people get along with him because he is friendly, a nice person, jokes a lot, laughs a lot,” Kunuk says. “[He’s] what we need more in this world.”
Above Airut’s dining table, the walls are plastered with certificates from the Canadian Rangers, a group of part-time reservists for the Canadian Forces. These First Nations and Inuit groups provide a military presence and search and rescue services in remote, isolated and coastal communities of Canada. Airut has served as a Ranger for 15 years, attending annual two-week training exercises in remote areas of Baffin Island each spring. In 2004, he earned the Queen’s Golden Jubilee medal for his years of service, his age and rank.
Bart Hanna, Airut’s youngest brother and another fine carver from lgloolik, serves with Airut in the elite Ranger group. During their annual spring “Nanook Exercises,” the men train in first aid, marksmanship (using .303-calibre semi-automatic rifles and 9-mm handguns), and orienteering skills using Global Positioning Systems (GPS). “Lukie is one of the top shots in the Rangers,” Hanna says. “He’s won a lot of trophies, plus extra stripes on his uniform.”
Other parts of the training develop Inuit survival skills, without the benefit of modern technology. This includes an igloo-building contest, navigation using the stars and moon, and discerning different types of snow and ice.
“Lukie doesn’t need GPS; he knows the skills of the land,” Hanna says. “He’s a good hunter. Caribou and walrus hunting, that’s all he does. That’s his priority.”
This feature was originally published in the Inuit Art Quarterly‘s Fall 2006 issue (21.3).