Focus On: Jaco Ishulutaq

You may know your own version of this story, but the legend of Sedna goes something like this: a young woman, thrown into the sea, tries to cling onto her father’s kayak. Her fingers are sliced off, and she sinks to the bottom of the waters, where she becomes the Mother of the Sea—her severed fingers become the seals, walruses and whales that feed Inuit. Sedna is a being of great importance: if hunters were not respectful of the harmony between human and animal, land and sea, Sedna would withhold her bounty.

Among the sculptures of Jaco Ishulutaq, one of the most prolific Inuit artists in Panniqtuuq (Pangnirtung), NU, and among the most skilled carvers of our time, are various depictions of Sedna. There is a swimming Sedna with inset teeth, made of stone and antler; a supine Sedna made of bone, looking right at you; a stone Sedna swimming with her tail so elegant and muscular, it looks too heavy for us to ever lift. One of his favourite subjects to carve, Ishulutaq says he wants to pass along the story of Sedna with his carvings. Learning to carve from his grandfather, Ishulutaq was born and raised in different camps, settling in Panniqtuuq with his family later. Through his art, he seeks to strengthen Inuit stories and values, and to depict “how one should live life.” [1] I like to think, in some ways, Ishulutaq is like the Sedna he enjoys carving so much: from his hands come his immense sculptures, parts of himself that go on to nurture the Inuit community and way of life.

To me, what separates Ishulutaq from his contemporaries are his vibrant depictions of Inuit life. Look at this beautiful stone carving of mother and child holding a pail. Their expressions are unique, bold and lively. The child seems to wail, tucked into the mother’s amauti to keep warm, as mom’s hands are occupied with the task of drawing water. The mixture of mediums makes the pail pop against the elegant stone, and fine details of the amauti—the pattern on the torso, the foldings at the hood—breathe life and personality into this small snapshot of Inuit motherhood.

In People of the Community (2021), five formidable figures are engaged in vivacious discussion, wielding tools like a pail or a saw or a spear. Each member orbits the centre of the sculpture, holding their own individual, animated pose. There is something captivating in the way Ishulutaq shapes the people in his sculptures; here, as in the sculpture of mother and child, each person is expressive and uniquely alive. Their bodies are dressed and draped in Inuit garments, rounded and durable, wonderfully balanced and weighted. These characters feel buoyant and alive, as if any one of these figures could magically turn around and walk off the scene. In fact, one seems to be just stumbling onto it, their left foot making its first step onto the sculpture’s platform, right foot trailing not too far behind.

Ishulutaq’s love for Inuit life is clearly demonstrated not only in his sculptures of people, but also his care for the environment that sustains Inuit culture. If the lesson of Sedna is to find harmony, then there are countless signs we have failed. In Global Warming (2010) Ishulutaq leaves no ambiguity to the consequences of ignoring these lessons. Using soapstone, bone and ivory, he depicts a grave scene: the enormity of loss suffered by the impacts of climate change manifests as a massive and foreboding walrus skull, as creatures of all kinds—a fish, a seal, a polar bear, a narwhal—come to rest on it, as if in mourning. Yet, there is still some hope built into this moment of grief: two human hands reach toward another across the sculpture’s seabottom, fingers still intact.

If Ishulutaq’s sculptures have carved a place in your heart, I recommend checking out other expressive sculptors like Lukie Airut and Bart Hanna Kappianaq, brothers from Iglulik, NU, or Oviloo Tunnillie from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU.

Stefan Chua
Staff Writer @ Inuit Art Foundation, Toronto, Ontario

1 Kaitlyn Rathwell and Derek Armitage, “Art and artistic processes bridge knowledge systems about social-ecological change: An empirical examination with Inuit artists from Nunavut, Canada,” Ecology and Society vol. 21, no. 2 (2016): 21.

This article was written by Stefan Chua and edited by Jessica MacDonald and Sue Carter.

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