Written by Lily-Cannelle Mathieu
Edited by Gabby Marcuzzi Herie
David Ruben Piqtoukun, an Inuvialuit artist born in Paluatuk, a small town located in Canada’s Northwest Territories,[i] is one of today’s most celebrated figures in the field of contemporary Inuit art. The sculptor’s works are collected internationally, and several of his pieces are on display at public and private institutions across the world.[ii] Ruben,[iii] a member of the prestigious Sculptors Society of Canada since 1998,[iv] is nationally renowned and his works seem to be highly appreciated by government officers. Although Ruben is most well-known in the art world for his polished stone shamans and sculptures of zoomorphic spirits, the Canadian government has been especially interested in commissioning large-scale inuksuit.[v] Inuksuit (singular: inuksuk, “acting in the capacity of a human being”) are purposely-erected markers, traditionally built using field stones by Inuit peoples to guide their travels, assist them in hunting, and indicate caches or dangerous passage zones.[vi] While most of Ruben’s inuksuit follow a traditional model in terms of shape and materials (see, for example, the cairn he made for the Canadian embassy in Washington), his 2007 sculpture Our Spirits: They Soar High (fig. 1), which he defines as a “northern inuksuk,”[vii] stands out to me as particularly unconventional in its interpretation of the inuksuk. The coloured steel and stone figure, which is situated in the lobby of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (hereafter INAC), is bold, provocative, and intriguing. In this essay, I interpret Ruben’s sculpture as conveying a multi-dimensional claim for Inuit self-definition and presence in the contemporary world. In fact, I believe it partakes in an dynamic Inuit project wherein individuals assert themselves and their peoples’ “rights to sovereignty, self-determination and custodianship over the land and its natural resources.”[viii] By ingeniously engaging with the complex dimensions of geography, culture, temporality, and humanness, Ruben’s contemporary inuksuk brilliantly exemplifies Inuit strength and resilience.
The spatial dimension: an unsettling inuksuk
Our Spirits: They Soar High is physically imposing in size (84 x 96.1 inches, more than two metres in both height and width), in the assertive dynamism of its curved steel upper piece, in the vividness and depth of its colours, and in the bulkiness of its stone components. The work takes up space. Yet, when viewed frontally, the inuksuk’s steel structure is only a thin, simplified outline – a delicate contour of an imaginary being raising its arms to the skies – supporting several heavy stones. Is the sculpture massive or slender? Full of wit, the work plays its viewers, mocking their fallible and subjective perception of form. It insists to be looked at from a second perspective in order to be understood in its three-dimensionality, and thus prompts its viewers to reconsider their notion of space. In unsettling its viewers – INAC functionaries and their visitors – Ruben’s inuksuk makes a keen commentary on the possibility for different perceptions of a single object/space to coexist. Is the sculpture massive or is it slender? Is this land Qallunaat (“non-Inuit”) or Inuit? Is it to be protected or to be exploited? While some answers seem readily available, they can be confused by spatial and epistemological shifts. In upsetting spatial perception, the artwork forces the possibility of a second point of view to be acknowledged by the viewer. The Qallunaat can now acknowledge the Inuit’s perspective, as well as the polyvalency of the Arctic – a past locus of Cold War anxiety, an epicentre of global warming distress, a land to be mined or exploited with hydro-electric plants,[ix] a conceptual space legitimizing Canada’s national mythology of being a “Great Northern Power,”[x] and also one’s home. It can be a land that one inherits from their ancestors and is accountable for.[xi] And, sadly, it can be a space from which one is forcibly removed, or of which one is dispossessed.
The geometric contouring of the sculpture is striking in its straightforwardness: far from the jagged outline of an inuksuk made of stacked stones, the sculpture’s silhouette is more mathematical than it is geological. It is, perhaps, more political than natural, more like a modern map with arbitrarily drawn lines than a geographical reality. With the graphic simplicity of its outline, Ruben’s artwork can be seamlessly integrated into urban settings. Yet the coarse granite, dolomite, and field stones integrated into the work seem out of place in the urban institutional setting of the sculpture. The bottom stone, left unpainted, appears especially incompatible with the polished floor and brick wall of the INAC lobby. Like the “brute stones” of Robert Smithson’s 1968 Nonsite (Line of Wreckage) (fig. 2), a rectangular steel structure on which stones are stacked, Ruben’s dislocated stones serve both as metonymic (standing for a whole) and mnemonic (provoking remembrance) of the land from which they were taken.[xii] They are forming a non-site, as Smithson phrased it,[xiii] an abstract reference (embodied as an artwork) to a very tangible site that gains visibility in the process of abstraction and displacement of the stones. The inuksuk’s stones unapologetically insert themselves into southern Canadian urban life to call attention to the very fact that they were extracted from somewhere else. In this way, they mark their origin as site of extraction and their destination as exploitative. Further, in a manner analogous to Christo and Jeanne Claude’s 1968 Wrapped Coast (fig. 3), Ruben’s artwork can be interpreted as signifying that “everything in the world is owned by somebody.”[xiv] In fact, while Christo and Jeanne Claude temporarily appropriated a rocky Australian coast by wrapping it in polypropylene net, Ruben made, in my opinion, an even bolder statement by irreversibly appropriating stones: by displacing them, colouring them, and fixing them to his work – which he sold, astutely, to a government entity – he made clear that even rocks belong to somebody.
Hence, I read Ruben’s 2007 inuksuk as claiming a legitimate place for Inuit perspectives by unsettling the viewer’s perception of space and, with its unusual use of stones, as drawing critical attention to Arctic land, resources, and geographic ownership. The dimensions of space integrated in the sculpture are thus dynamically opening the way for further physical, metaphorical, and epistemological Inuit presence in the Qallunaat world.
The cultural dimension: an Inuit re-appropriation of the inuksuk symbol
In its specifically cultural dimension, Ruben’s sculpture stands as an artistic interpretation of the inuksuk, an apparatus of Arctic life and Inuit symbol that has been appropriated, in the past several decades, to become a Canadian cultural emblem. Our Spirits: They Soar High is an Inuit artist’s re-appropriation of this symbol, an inspiring instance of cultural resilience and self-definition.
According to Inuit scholar Heather Igloliorte, following WWII the national and international success of Inuit art “played a crucial role in the construction of a national identity distinct from the United States and Britain.”[xv] Canada’s appropriation of its Indigenous peoples’ cultural production provided its settler-colonial population with “a necessary sense of belonging” in the anxiety-ridden times of the Cold War.[xvi] More specifically, the external and internal demand for recognizable Canadian icons contributed to the rise of the inuksuk as a widely embraced symbol of Canadian nationalism.[xvii] Representations of inuksuit as emblems of ‘Canadian-ness’ have, in fact, proliferated since the mid-twentieth century. As a result of the reproduction of this symbol in mass-produced souvenir gadgets, the selection of the inuksuk as a symbol for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, and the construction of full-scale inuksuit in Canadian airports, government sites, and international locations such as Argentina, Russia, Afghanistan, and France – where inuksuit have been built by both Inuit and Qallunaat Canadians as diplomatic stands-in for Canada and even as war memorials for Canadian veterans – the Inuit cairn has been raised to the status of internationally-recognized, pervasive Canadian symbol.[xviii] This cultural appropriation of the inuksuk has also, in instances such as the Hans Island case,[xix] been politically useful to Canada in some international land conflicts. Indeed, Inuksuit raised by Inuit people on the Hans Island and in disputed areas of the Arctic have been used, ironically, as “tangible” proof that “from time immemorial Canada’s Inuit people have used and occupied” the land.[xx]
Although the nationalistic construct of Canadian-ness surrounding the inuksuk – which is the central figure on the flag of Nunavut, an Inuit territory that was legally recognized by the Canadian government in a groundbreaking 1999 land claim settlement[xxi] – seems to me an excessive case of cultural appropriation, some Inuit people are proud of the international visibility the inuksuk is gaining.[xxii] However, others, like the Inuit cultural activist Peter Irniq, have asked for “a more thoughtful and respectful approach to inuksuit by southern Canadians.”[xxiii] I believe David Ruben Piqtoukun’s 2007 inuksuk is an heartfelt embodiment of this great respect for the cultural symbol and, indeed, a claim for its re-appropriation by the Inuit. Because its unconventional shape and materials, and because its title, Our Spirits: They Soar High, do not readily identify the sculpture as an inuksuk, only the artist’s claim that it is one can give the public certitude as to what it represents. Thus, in resisting decipherability by the public, Ruben insists on the legitimacy of his own voice. He claims the right for Inuit to define their culture and their symbols in their own terms. Like the stacked-stone inuksuit built around the world, Ruben’s inuksuk located in the INAC lobby stands for a diplomat. But it is a confrontational diplomat, dressed in steel and armed with painted stones, ready to declare a cultural war of (re-)appropriation.
The temporal dimension: an assertion of Inuit and Qallunaat coevalness
Whereas the Inuit and other Indigenous peoples in North America have persistently been relegated to a historical existence by the settler-colonial discourse, Ruben’s inuksuk asserts the Inuit’s coevalness with the Qallunaat, and his peoples’ presence in the contemporary world.
Since the mid-twentieth century, Inuit art has been discussed in the global art world as an example of ‘modernist primitivism,’[xxiv] reminiscent of a “timeless place untainted by modernity.”[xxv] Contemporary Inuit artists in the past few decades have, however, started to reject the mould of timelessness that was imposed upon them by a colonial desire for primitiveness. Artists like David Ruben Piqtoukun, the celebrated Annie Pootoogook, who included modern elements such as televisions and electrical wires in her depictions of life in the Arctic, and Michael Massie, an artist of Inuit, Métis, and Scottish heritage who draws inspiration from both Inuit culture and European artistic traditions in works such as his surrealist teapots,[xxvi] are courageously contradicting the Qallunaat fantasy of primitiveness and unchanged indigeneity in their art.
In choosing to use steel for the frame of his sculpture rather than solely using stone, Ruben gave an industrial aesthetic to his inuksuk. Indeed, steel – a modern industrial material that played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution and is widely used in mass-produced commodities – has been used by many artists as well, such as those working in the 1920s machine-age in Europe and the 1960s American Minimalists. These artists employed steel to give an industrialized, impersonal, and modern quality to their works.[xxvii] Following this legacy, Ruben used steel in his own artwork to actualize the image of Inuit art, which is still frequently characterized as ‘primitive’ in mainstream ideology. While Montreal-based sculptor Jean Brillant, who uses steel and stones in his current project Porter la nature (fig. 4), feels the need to justify his use of stone but not his use of steel in the description of his work,[xxviii] Ruben is deemed “provocative” because of his sculpture’s industrial component.[xxix] While the Qallunaat artist is expected to use media such as steel, the Inuit artist is perpetually expected to use only natural materials in his art. By using steel in Our Spirits: They Soar High, Ruben actively sought to dismantle primitivist readings of Inuit arts and culture, claimed his use of modern media as legitimate, and asserted his and his peoples’ existence in the contemporary realm, thus adding a temporal dimension to his sculpture.
The human dimension: a claim to acknowledgment of Inuit’s humanness
The Inuit, like other Indigenous peoples of North America and the world, have historically been deemed ethnographic specimens by the dominant culture, and are frequently ‘othered’ from settler populations. While all are now considered human beings, these stereotypes are still prevalent in mainstream culture and systematically deny emotional complexity and natural human emotions to the Indigenous peoples of North America.[xxx] I believe that Ruben, in employing a ‘universal’ language – one that is often denied to Inuit artists – of geometric shapes and primary colours in his 2007 inuksuk, asks his viewers to acknowledge his people’s humanness. He asserts his right to share referents with other cultures, to have commonalities with other humans.
Ruben, in an artistic statement about Our Sprits: They Soar High, wrote that his inuksuk is about the “resilience of human spirit in battling with demoralization and genocide,” about the burdens of life, and about mind in search of wisdom. The man, who uses art-making as a therapy, conceived the white steel curve of his sculpture as a representation of rising arms and deliberately selected colours that evoke the “rising of the Human Spirit from the depths of despair and disillusionment.”[xxxi] Hence, the sculpture bears a hopeful outlook on humanity and its capacity for resilience and coexistence.[xxxii] Such hope for a common understanding is rendered in the INAC inuksuk by its simple and geometric outline (straight lines, rectangles, and a symmetrical arch) and its basic colours (blue, red, black, and white), formal elements that are strikingly similar to those in El Lissitzky’s 1919 Pround Vrashchenia (fig. 5). Lissitzky’s composition, which belongs to both the Constructivist and the Suprematist schools of twentieth-century Russia, is an instance of artistic experimentation in which shapes and colours in their “purest state” float in cosmic space.[xxxiii] Such “pure” states of matter, claimed by Lissitzky and his fellow artists to be universal, has, until very recently, been denied to Inuit sculptors by Qallunaat collectors’ restricted interest in ‘primitive’ art which, in order to be ‘authentic,’ had to be biomorphic and made of uncoloured stone, bone, tusk, or antler.[xxxiv] Thus, Ruben’s ‘universal’ pictorial language is one that he revendicates, one that was not always granted for him to use. His appropriation of these forms and colours ‘common to humanity’ in their pure state is an assertion of Inuit humanness and a claim to his peoples’ right to employ a language supposedly shared by humanity.
Whereas Qallunaat institutional Inuit holdings are more often considered ethnographic material than contemporary art,[xxxv] Ruben’s inuksuk is contemporary in its interpretational complexity and universal in its pictorial language. It truly acts in the capacity of a human being–as does a ‘true’ inuksuk in the Arctic, a meaning that is implied by the word ‘inuksuk’ itself.
In brief, David Ruben Piqtoukun’s innovative inuksuk has rich, complex, and intricate social implications. It has, as Rubens comments about his entire body of work, a lot of wisdom to share.[xxxvi] In defying what Inuit art, and inuksuit more specifically, are supposed to look like, Our Spirits: They Soar High invites a multi-dimensional reading: one that relates to space, culture, temporality, and humanness. My reading, as argued in this paper, is that Ruben, through his sculpture, asserts and asks for more Inuit presence in the contemporary world – a presence that should be defined in Inuit terms rather than being externally regulated.
[i] Sonia Gunderson, “David Ruben Piqtoukun: In Search of a Softer Wind,” Inuit Art Quarterly 22 no. 1 (Spring 2007): 29.
[ii] “David Ruben Piqtoukun – Artist/Sculptor,” David Ruben Piqtoukun, accessed November 24, 2017, http://www.davidruben.com/.
[iii] Ruben is the artist’s family name. His parents named him Piqtou (“gusty wind”), and, at the age of five, he ‘received’ the name David in residential school. The artist prefers to reserve his Inuit name, Piqtoukun, for formal occasions (Gunderson, “David Ruben Piqtoukun,” 29).
[iv] James Sinclair, “David Ruben Piqtoukun: Between Two Worlds,” Inuit Art Quarterly 19 no. 3 (Fall-Winter 2004): 30.
[v] Inuit Art Quarterly, “Provocative Inuksuk Installed in Government Building,” Inuit Art Quarterly 22, no. 3 (Fall 2007): 33.
[vi] Several other functions have been ascribed to inuksuit in literature. I have listed the ones that seem the most common as per the scholarly documentation. See: Nelson Graburn, “Inuksuk: Icon of the Inuit of Nunavut,” Études/Inuit/Studies 28, no. 1 (2004): 70-71; and Scott Heyes, “Protecting the Authenticity and Integrity of Inuksuit Within the Arctic Milieu,” Études/Inuit/Studies 26, no. 2 (2002): 134, 137. Watch: Positive NRG, “Interview with Peter Irniq: What is an Inukshuk?” video, 4:02, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKQ97rOwBH0.
[vii] IAQ, “Provocative Inuksuk,” 33.
[viii] Heather Igloliorte, “The Inuit of Our Imagination,” in Inuit Modern: The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection, ed. Gerald McMaster (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario; Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2010), 25.
[ix] Heyes, “Protecting the Authenticity and Integrity of Inuksuit,” 149.
[x] Christopher Fletcher, “Security, Sovereignty, Symbol: The Inuksuk in Global Position,” in Humanizing Security in the Arctic, ed. Michelle Daveluy et al. (Edmonton: Canadian Circumpolar Institute, 2011), 146.
[xi] Heather Igloliorte, “Arctic Culture/Global Indigeneity,” in Negotiations in a Vacant Lot: Studying the Visual in Canada, ed. Lynda Jessup et al. (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014), 157-166.
[xii] Andrew Jones, “Biographies in Stone: Place, Memory and the Prehistory of sculpture,” in Sculpture and Archaeology, ed. Paul Bonaventura and Andrew Jones (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011), 92.
[xiii] Jon Wood et al., ed., “Robert Smithson/Patricia Norvell: 1969,” in Modern Sculpture Reader (Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, 2007), 285 and 291.
[xiv] Keith Broadfoot, “Australian Art on the Move: Christo and Jeanne Claude’s Wrapped Coast,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art 14, no. 1 (2014): 63.
[xv] Igloliorte, “Arctic Culture/Global Indigeneity,” 157.
[xvi] Ibid, 159.
[xvii] Graburn, “Inuksuk: Icon of the Inuit of Nunavut,” 79.
[xviii] Fletcher, “Security, Sovereignty, Symbol” and Graburn, “Inuksuk: Icon of the Inuit of Nunavut.”
[xix] Fletcher, “Security, Sovereignty, Symbol,” 143.
[xx] Fletcher, “Security, Sovereignty, Symbol,” 143.
[xxi] Charles J. Marecic, “Nunavut Territory: Aboriginal Governing in the Canadian Regime of Governance,” American Indian Law Review 24, no. 2 (1999): 275.
[xxii] For example, Paul Okalik, premier of the Nunavut territory, celebrated the use of the inuksuk symbol for the Vancouver Olympics. Shadian, “In Search of an Identity Canada Looks North,” 346.
[xxiii] Fletcher, “Security, Sovereignty, Symbol,” 155.
[xxiv] Igloliorte, “Arctic Culture/Global Indigeneity,” 153.
[xxv] Deborah Root, “Inuit Art and the Limits of Authenticity,” Inuit Art Quarterly 23, no.2 (summer 2008): 18.
[xxvi] “Michael Massie,” Artist Index, Spirit Wrestler Gallery, 2012, http://www.spiritwrestler.com/catalog/index.php?artists_id=196.
[xxvii] Carl W. Condit, et al.,”Iron and steel,” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, Oxford University Press, accessed December 2, 2017, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/subscriber/article/grove/art/T041633.
[xxviii] Jean Brillant, “Porter la nature,” Sculptures, Jean Brillant Sculpteur, accessed November 24, 2017, http://jeanbrillant.com/porter-la-nature/.
[xxix] IAQ, “Provocative Inuksuk Installed in Government Building,” 33.
[xxx] Elizabeth Bird, “Savage Desires: The Gendered Construction of the American Indian in Popular Media,” in Selling the Indian: Commercializing and Appropriating American Indian Cultures, eds. Meyer Carter Jones and Diane Roger (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001), 65.
[xxxi] IAQ, “Provocative Inuksuk Installed in Government Building,” 33.
[xxxii] In a televised interview, Ruben stated that “People can coexist. At one time we didn’t, but… now we have an opportunity to education and tolerance, we have an opportunity to coexist, I believe…” In Rogers Tv, “Colour and Vision: Portraits in Art – David Ruben Piqtoukun,” Rogers TV, video, 24:08, http://www.davidruben.com/media.html.
[xxxiii] Patricia Railing, “Proun: The Interchange Station of Suprematism and Constructivism,” The Structurist no. 31 (1991): 58-60.
[xxxiv] Root, “Inuit Art and the Limit of Authenticity.”
[xxxv] Marybelle Mitchell, “Ways of Thinking about Inuit Art: Sharing Power,” Inuit Art Quarterly 21, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 10.
[xxxvi] BBC Production, “Destination Art: David Ruben Piqtoukun,”2006, BBC, video, 5:34, http://www.davidruben.com/destinationart.html.