Interview: Bart Hanna

By February 27, 2018Feature

In 2013, Bart Hanna completed his most ambitious sculpture to date: Migration, a monumental ship with a cast of unique characters carved from a single block of stone weighing over 700 pounds, retrieved more than 300 miles north of Iglulik (Igloolik), NU, outside of Ikpiarjuk (Arctic Bay). In this interview with IAF Executive Director Alysa Procida, Hanna explains the significance of this singular work.

Bart Hanna Kappianaq (b. 1948 Iglulik), Migration, 2013, Arctic marble, ivory, baleen and sinew, 203.2 x 144.8 x 38.1 cm PRIVATE COLLECTION, PHOTO CANADIAN ARCTIC PRODUCERS

Alysa Procida: I’m sitting in front of the Migration piece, and I have to say, I was shocked when I saw it in person because it is so incredibly detailed. How long did it take you sculpt this? 

Bart Hanna: This one, maybe six to seven months. It’s not that big, but it’s the most detailed, and it’s the most work I’ve ever done, so you might as well say it’s the biggest piece. Hopefully all the pieces after this will be as big or better. That’s what I’m aiming at now.

AP: Was there something about this piece that made you want to make it really detailed?

BH: Since I had to get the stone all the way from Arctic Bay,[1] when I was working on the stone I thought about how long it took to get it and how much work it was. I tried not to waste too much and only threw out very small pieces.

AP: How long does it take you to get out to where the stone is?

BH: Usually it takes people a day, and maybe they would have to sleep one night—maybe two nights—and rest [overnight], and then [travel] the full day again. And you’re pretty tired by the time you reach Arctic Bay. But this year and the other year before it, to get some smaller pieces we drove [more than] 18 hours non-stop: we left Friday around 4pm and we kept going until Saturday about 11 o’clock in the morning.

AP: Since Migration is carved from a single piece of stone, it must have been huge. How did you get it out of the ground and bring it back?

BH: This stone was lucky enough to be on top of the other rocks, on the mountainside of Arctic Bay. You have to climb up the hill with the Ski-Doo and a qamutiik, but it can’t be too heavy because otherwise you won’t make it. To get the stone for Migration, we put it on a qamutiik with steel sliders. We tied another big stone behind it to drag through the snow so it wouldn’t slide too fast. We tried to control it, but the stone was so heavy the rope snapped and it hit a bump, or a rock, and flew up in the air. We thought the qamutiik would be broken, but it landed nicely on one side and nobody got hurt.

AP: Oh, that was lucky! When you went to get the stone, were you looking for a particular piece because you had this sculpture in mind, or did you find this piece and know that you wanted to carve this?

BH: It was kind of that shape, almost like a bow, and [it made me] think of a boat right away. This boat is like one from a dream my grandfather had—it’s a shaman’s boat. [Ed. note: In a further written version of this story, the artist explained in his grandfather Kappianaq’s dream, his father George Agiaq Kappianaq was healed of an infected hip by visiting shamans who arrived via ship.] I wanted to put as many carvings as possible on that boat, but not too many inside.

Good shamans were good servants; they were like doctors. If someone was sick or hungry [they would] provide food or cure them through supernatural powers. When the shamans were doing their ritual they had to [travel] a long distance, to fly to the spirit. They were travelling to the spirit [in my grandfather’s dream].

AP: Migration reminds me of moving from place to place. Was that also something you were thinking of, physically moving from one location to another?

BH: Yes, that’s the thing, because the story was, you had to get somewhere. When someone was sick or hungry, shamans were not in one place. You had to go a long distance. Even, sometimes, I heard, when they wanted a cigarette, the shaman would go down South and take one cigarette—one little stick of cigarette! It’s crazy! If I was a shaman, I’d take a whole bunch of them back for the whole year! They would take one little cigarette and hope so many people would smoke that. It multiplies, [like in] the story of Jesus. When people were hungry and there were only three fish—it’s similar.

Bart Hanna KappianaqMigration (detail) PHOTO CANADIAN ARCTIC PRODUCERS

AP: I want to ask you about some of my favourite parts of the piece. This sculpture reminds me of a Viking boat, and I was wondering why there’s a dragon head on the front.

BH: My grandfather was moving with the little boat with no motor, because it was the 1800s. He started going from Iglulik to Manito, like a dragon. Because we didn’t know any dragons, he only said, “It’s like a snake.” And I put that there because I think they saw a dragon. It answers to the shaman, and they needed a spirit, and I put that dragon head on the boat because that boat is like a dream—it’s a dream, and it’s moved by the shamans, so it has to be special. There’s no such thing as an Inuktitut dragon, but we could say [another word that is similar to] “dragon.”

AP: Is that why the dragon is also in the narwhal tusk?

BH: Yeah, because there’s a little boat that’s trying to tell a story. It’s my grandfather and his friend. You see the little boat on that tusk and that big dragon behind it? That’s supposed to be that story.

AP: The person at the front of the boat, is that your grandfather? Or is that a shaman?

BH: That would be a shaman. It could be my grandfather. My relatives—my ancestors—were shamans.

AP: And the walrus standing behind him, what does that figure represent?

BH: Also a shaman, but maybe coming from the Vikings. He has an anchor on his shoulder. I put him in there because the Vikings were the first ones up here. That’s part of it too. I had to make those guys part of it because they were a big help, bringing tea and [trading] rifles. They had to become part of [Migration], because they were part of us anyway. Tobacco, tea and biscuits and everything else from the South, we needed that; it was a great help.

AP: Behind the walrus, is that also a shaman combing Sedna’s hair?

BH: That one and the other woman are Sedna’s personal hairdressers, her helpers. Like anyone in high places, she had her own people. Sedna is so important, like a queen. Sedna is so important to me. I have to put her in when I make things.

AP: And the last person on the boat?

BH: The one with traditional clothing is important in the boat: he’s like us. People weren’t always shamans; you had to become one. From ordinary to someone—that’s the meaning of it. When we were born, maybe we were just ordinary people. And then as we grow up, and things happen, we become very powerful and meet other shamans. Like anyone else, you start working by sweeping the floor, and later on in life, you become very good at something. I’ve been carving a long time, and still, I want to become better.

AP: Is that a polar bear at the top of the narwhal tusk?

BH: That would be a [lookout] bear, to see if there’s any land or ice nearby. Like the Titanic—they had to be looking out before the accident with the iceberg. It’s similar. Polar bears are very important for someone like me—a hunter. When we go on the ocean, they’re mostly on the ice. Some are pretty good, but some are mean. They have different attitudes, like people. There are a lot of bears now, more than ever.

Bart Hanna KappianaqMigration (detail) PHOTO CANADIAN ARCTIC PRODUCERS

AP: Why did you put two dogs on the boat?

BH: On the migration boat, when we were going somewhere, we had to have dogs. When we went to the mainland to go caribou hunting, dogs were very important. If you’re lost, [they] could take you home, in the foggy days. They were very helpful.

My brother [Lukie Airut] has a dog team, but I don’t have [one] because it’s a full-time job. You have to look after them; it’s a lot of work. They have to eat every second day or every three days. It’s a lot of work, a lot of hunting, a lot of ammunition. Hunting is not cheap; it’s very expensive. Gas is very expensive, ammunition is very expensive, and Ski-Doos are very expensive, like small cars. [They can cost up to] $18,000. A Ski-Doo doesn’t cost $8,000 anymore.

AP: Speaking of hunting, you have used baleen, a narwhal tusk and two walrus tusks for this piece. Did you hunt any of these animals yourself, or did you get them from people in your community?

BH: The narwhal tusk I got from my friend, [and so] I kept it for a long time. He gave it to me as a Christmas present, maybe seven years ago. It took a long time [to carve], I think maybe a couple of weeks. I had to work long, long hours, and I put all my energy in—everything I had. The walrus tusks I had to hunt in the springtime. I don’t go out too much in the winter anymore because it’s kind of dangerous.

AP: How long do you have to wait after you have hunted the walrus to carve the tusks?

BH: You don’t have to wait too [long]. Sometimes you dip it in the oil and try to cure it, take the skin off and dip it in the oil or put it in something and cure it a bit, maybe [for] a week.

AP: Do you carve the ivory with different tools than the ones you use to carve the stone? Is your process different?

BH: Nowadays, I use rotary tools. I wouldn’t waste too much. That’s a good thing, because before we had to use a sharp knife or an axe, and you take a lot off, and I don’t want to do that anymore. You save a precious piece; you have to save it and try to use as little as possible. You don’t want to take too much out. With ivory, you can’t waste too much, similar to the stone I had to get from Arctic Bay. I don’t want to take too much off.

AP: The title for this piece is interesting, in part because it makes me think of another series of pieces titled Migration by Joe Talirunili from Puvirnituq, about his personal migration. Did that influence you at all?

BH: Yes, I’ve seen it, I think in an issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly. A whole bunch of little people in a boat. I’d like to make one similar to that, but I wanted to make this one different from the others.

AP: RJ [Ramrattan, Showroom Manager at Canadian Arctic Producers,] and I were talking, and we were saying that it reminded both of us of more recent history in the Arctic, where certain families were forced by the government to move between places, particularly the relocations to Qausuittuq (Resolute Bay) and Ausuittuq (Grise Fjord).

BH: It was very hard for them. And sometimes, it’s very hard for me because I don’t want to be mad. What they did to me—when they took us to the residential school—it’s a similar feeling. It was very hard leaving our parents. For us at least, we were put in a warm place and going to school every day, but those families were brought to an alien land that they didn’t know. People were starving, hungry, and the government wasn’t very honest with them. Things like that, it hurts. I’m hurt and sometimes it’s very hard.

AP: I can’t imagine how horrible any of that would have been, especially as a young child. Because you were born on the land, you weren’t born in a community, right?  

BH: I was born on the land, and we were always out there. In the summertime we’d live in tents. In the winter I remember living in a house. I was too young, but I knew at seven years old I had to go to the residential school. We were forced to go with the nuns. I think the nuns thought, “We have to be like mothers to them.” But they were very different from our mothers. As a child I was very aware, and it was very hard. [The Royal Canadian Mounted Police] started putting us into the communities. It was a sudden change. The government also started changing names then. I was Bartholomew Hanna, but my grandfather’s name was Kappianaq.

AP: You have signed your works Bart Hanna, but you also sign your last name Kappianaq too, is that right?

BH: Yes, my last name is Kappianaq. I was named after a white missionary [and] given the name Bartholomew Hanna, but Kappianaq is important because that’s my grandfather’s [name], and that’s what Migration is about.

Bart Hanna KappianaqMigration (detail) PHOTO CANADIAN ARCTIC PRODUCERS

AP: There’s a medicine bag on the boat. Is that a reference to your sick father?

BH: That [medicine bag] would be for people, to cure them; shamans were very important for that. Not because they have a medicine bag, but for us, we need to see something that we don’t know; we need to look at something, an object. With the medicine bag, it transfers a shaman’s word, or doctor’s or anything. That story—Grandfather’s story—that’s the guy who carries the medicine bag, so that’s why I put that.

AP: It’s interesting because this is one of the things that got me thinking about the relocations. One of the reasons the government gave for moving some Inuit off the land and into communities was that they were sick. Were you thinking about any of those things?

BH: Maybe [the move] was good, because there was a nursing station and a life could be saved. There’s a lot of things I have put in there that I think about a lot. It’s all the things that happened, and all the energy I have to put out to become a better person. And what happened in the past, all the feelings I have and what happened to me and others, loved ones… All [of] that has to be in there, even though it’s not just one story.

AP: Exactly. You see this idea of travelling in this piece, for example, that’s so beautiful, but there are less beautiful, and sometimes awful, kinds of travelling in the Arctic. Do you think about that at all when you carve something like this?

BH: I think about a lot of those things, especially the ordinary Inuk drum dancing [in Migration]. Maybe that would suit the people who were put into one place by the government.

AP: People are shocked to hear, for example, that people were forced to move from Inukjuak to Grise Fjord, because nobody ever hears about it. And so when I see a piece like this and it’s so intricate and interesting, I always wonder if there are little bits of those stories that are hidden in the sculptures and if it’s personally important for you in those ways.

BH: I think if I had to carve something like that again, I will deeply impress the deepest feelings of hurt. I would again try to do a carving like that, and be specific about people like us and [being moved] to other places by the government.

AP: Do you think it’s important for people in your community to see this kind of work?

BH: I think it’s very important, because there’s some pain in there. I’m not a writer, I have to put it in the stone. My feeling is to share it with other people and hope they try to understand. [I want people to feel] inspired. Maybe happy, but also inspired. [That is] most important. I hope they’re inspired: people, children and artists. I hope it’ll help a bit.




[1] The Inuit Art Quarterly privileges Inuit place names for publication. However, we have chosen in this instance to leave references to Ikpiarjuk as Arctic Bay throughout in keeping with Hanna’s voice.


This interview originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly. It was conducted in the Spring of 2013. It has been edited and condensed.

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