When the Inuvialuk sculptor David Ruben Piqtoukun was about five years old, he was bundled onto a plane by Catholic missionaries along with several other children and flown uncomprehendingly hundreds of kilometres across the Northwest Territories to attend a residential school. He calls it “the abduction” and one of his carvings now showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto makes reference to that event.
Shaman in Flight from 2000 features the shaman with his head flung back, turning his face up to the sky – a common posture in Piqtoukun’s work. There’s a small aircraft attached to his forehead by a metal rod with a human figure clinging to the fuselage. At the opening for a survey of his work at the AGO, the sculptor, now 72, explained he didn’t want to get inside that plane, because of what had happened to him as a child.
Yet if the work refers to a trauma, it’s also slyly humorous: A shaman can fly; he hardly needs a plane.
Piqtoukun’s work as a carver and sculptor, from 1972 to the present, is one of hybridization. He is both a modernist and a traditionalist, developing his own contemporary vocabulary to tell ancestral stories, using metal as well as stone, antler and bone. And, as the shaman metamorphosizes into a muskox, seal or raven, the stories themselves are all about hybrids.
He began working in soapstone in Vancouver in the 1970s with his brother, the sculptor Abraham Anghik Ruben, and was soon showing professionally. He now lives in Belleville, Ont. So, he has developed an independent artistic career in Southern Ontario, separate from the co-op system that has distributed art from Nunavut.
In some ways, you could just position him as a minor modernist, sourcing materials from around the world and taking inspiration from a global movement. The curved armatures in which he mounts some of his larger stone orbs and masks look like pieces by Joan Miro or Alexander Calder; his voids recall Henry Moore. Forte, for example, is a pyramid-shaped musical instrument made of African opal and antler, with a hole for a handle, and marked with the treble clef. With more recent work, he pushes into neo-abstraction with environmental references tucked into apparently formalist pieces: Thar She Blows!, a three-metre wide swoosh of bright blue bone from 2021, is a giant whale rib, painted in reference to the endangered blue whale.
And yet obviously Piqtoukun’s work is mainly driven by the stories he has collected from his original community, a determined act of recall that gives rise to the title curator Wanda Nanibush has given this show: Radical Remembrance.
These can be successfully political: The most intriguing of his large stone masks is People of the Midnight Sun, a two-side face mounted in a red metal ring so that it can rotate, and inscribed with the testimony (in English) about Inuvialuit life that two elders from Paulatuk gave to the Berger Commission in the mid-1970s. (Justice Thomas Berger’s 1977 report on the feasibility of pipeline projects in the North marked a new sensitivity to Indigenous views and eventually gave rise, through land claims, to the Inuvialuit Settlement.)
And smaller pieces can be gently funny: Big Fish is a figure in the classic arm-span pose of a boasting fisherman, except his arms are the actual fish. Or that fusion of human and animal can be otherworldly weird, as a shaman turns his head to stare at us from the flat body of a seal (Shaman) or a fish appears with a smiling face and multiple eyes (Bottom Fish Man).
These hybrids are the nub of Piqtoukun’s achievement, suggesting encounters between human and nature, and modernity and tradition, that are both fertile and dangerous. Beside the Shaman in Flight, sits a companion piece, Shaman Crash Landing, a broken plane with a mask-like figurehead. The small plane is a crucial transportation link in the Arctic but in bad weather disaster can strike: Among Piqtoukun’s stories is the painfully ironic tale of the day a plane crashed into the Paulatuk graveyard, killing both pilots. Twenty passengers survived.
Radical Remembrance: The sculptures of David Ruben Piqtoukun is showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario to June 25.