“Art was like a therapy for me” — Canadian artist Manasie Akpaliapik reflects on work, life & his solo exhibition in Quebec City

Hommage au morse. Circa 2000. One of the artworks featured in the current Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec exhibit devoted to the sculptures of Canadian Inuk artist Manasie Akpaliapik. Materials used for this work include whale bone, ivory, baleen, catlinite and black pyrophyllite. (Idra Labrie/Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec)

Manasie Akpaliapik still remembers how he felt when he found out he’d be the first Inuk artist to have solo exhibition at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ).

“Incredible, just incredible,”  Akpaliapik said in a phone interview.  “I’m so happy and so lucky to be experiencing this.”

But Akpaliapik is quick to note that he sees it not just as an important milestone for him, but for Inuit art more broadly.

“Inuit art is evolving,” he said.  “At the beginning the tools were very limited. Just a file and a hack saw. There was no electrical stuff, so the shapes were different. Now we’re getting into more detail and venturing out further and further in what we do. There are going to be more and more good Inuit artists coming out all the time. They know how important it is to keep our traditions alive.”

Manasie Akpaliapik. Univers inuit. La collection Raymond Brousseau opened June 18 in Quebec City.

The exhibition features 40 of the artist’s sculptures produced between 1997 and 2003. The majority of the works are from the museum’s Raymond Brousseau Collection. Brousseau was a collector and Inuit art dealer in Quebec City who donated 2,635 works from his collection to the MNBAQ in 2005 and was a huge supporter of Akpaliapik’s work.

“Travelling and seeing other cultures and what they’re doing with their art influences me,” says Manasie Akpaliapik, citing past visits to places like Greenland as still impacting him today.  (Shelby Lisk/Courtesy Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec)

Daniel Drouin, curator of the exhibition, describes visitor reaction to the Akpaliapik exhibit as  “total wonderment.”

Manasie Akpaliapik is considered by many of his peers and by many collectors and museums as the most important Inuk sculptor in Canada,” Drouin said in a phone interview from Quebec City.

‘Every sculpture tells a story’

The majority of the sculptures feature whale bone, a material that remains Akpaliapik’s favourite.

“I can work with stone as well, but I like to work with whale bones because they have different textures and colorations that  give you a lot of ideas,” he said.

“I try not to impose my ideas on the material too much. I follow the material and how it is alive and wants to be this way or that way.”

Akpaliapik’s subject matter ranges from Arctic legends, to wildlife.

“I hope people can see, and understand how we live and how we lived in the Arctic,” he said. “The animals, the beliefs, the drum dances and other stuff like that. It feels so good to be able to present it.”

Un jeune homme exposant fièrement le fait que ses connaissances proviennent des aînés et de ses ancêtres, 1997. A Manasie Akpaliapik sculpture in alabaster, whale bone, caribou antler and black pyrophyllite. (Idra Labrie/Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec)

Drouin says Akpaliapik’s talent in telling these stories through sculpture is part of what makes his work so resonant. 

“Manasie Akpaliapik is proud of his culture and roots,” he said. “Through his art, he’s able to leave a legacy to the next generation. Every one of his sculptures tells its own story.”

Art as companion

Akpaliapik says in addition to his subject matter, he’d also like people to consider the quality of his work as his hallmark.

“Workmanship is the key for me,”Akpaliapik said. “I try to make everything as clean as possible and my philosophy is to do my best.”

Akpaliapik, now 65, says art has been a constant companion throughout his life.

He grew up learning sculpture from his grandfather in Arctic Bay, a community in Canada’s Far North, in what is now Nunavut territory.

“I try not to impose my ideas on the material too much,”Manasie Akpaliapik says. “I follow the material and how it is alive and wants to be this way or that way.” Pictured here, La Peur de perdre sa culture. Circa 2000. Whale bone, caribou antler, white stone and black black pyrophyllite. (Idra Labrie/Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec)

Later on, when down South for college upgrading in Winnipeg, he remembered what he’d learned from his grandfather and started carving muskox to help make ends meet.

But it was a family tragedy that drove him to art in a serious way, he said, and something he still credits with helping him recover.

“I lost my wife and two children in a house fire in 1989. I was working at a mine just outside of Resolute Bay and every time I went back home, people were sympathetic to me and I couldn’t handle it anymore. I just wanted to go somewhere where nobody knew what happened to me.”

Akpaliapik went to Montreal, started seeing a counselor and says his artwork was an important stepping stone towards processing his loss.

“The thing I learned from my grandpa is how peaceful it is when you’re working with sculptures and telling stories,” Akpaliapik said. “In Montreal, sculpture gave me something to work on with my mind.

“Art helped me to cope with the tragedy. Art was like a therapy for me.”

Travelling exhibition in the works

Manasie Akpaliapik. Univers inuit. La collection Raymond Brousseau runs until February 12, 2023.

Plans are also currently underway to have the exhibit travel to other parts of Canada.

Information on the exhibit is available on the museum’s website.

Write to Eilís at eilis.quinn@cbc.ca 

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG)-Qaumajuq in Canada launches interactive digital platform for Inuit carvings, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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