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Talking Fish

David Ruben Piqtoukun
Talking Fish, 2000
Grey, brown, red, and black Brazilian soapstone
34 x 64.5 x 15.5 cm
Purchased 2001

In 1976 the artist Pauloosie Kasadluak described sculpture as a vehicle for "showing the truth" about Inuit life to the world outside the Arctic. Since then, other artists have also come to regard post-1949 Inuit art as an important resource within the culture itself - preserving the past and its values for today's young Inuit and future generations. David Ruben Piqtoukun adds a personal dimension to this evolution of meaning, making sculpture a vital tool in his exploration of questions of identity and survival. In Talking Fish, the artist brings a fresh perspective to the dialogue between Inuit art and oral narrative traditions.

Born near Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, Ruben is of Alaskan and Karmgmalitmiut (people of the Mackenzie River delta) Inuit heritage. As a child, he attended residential schools in Aklavik and Inuvik. As a young adult, the resulting losses of fluency in Inuktitut and in hunting skills sent him south looking for work and a place to fit in. After spending time in Alberta he moved to Vancouver and took up carving. It was not long before the artist's work brought him to an exploration of his culture: "I have learned the importance of learning about my past and translating oral stories into visual form." Ruben began by reading anthropological sources on Inuit myths and legends and went on to seek out the stories of his Paulatuk relatives.

Ruben has developed a personal symbolism and has produced an impressive body of work over the past three decades. The bear, his helping spirit, figures prominently, in addition to his namesake, Piqtou ("huge, gusty wind"), and Saila, the wind god. The artist also understands the didactic and metaphoric functions that underpin an oral tradition. Recently, the narratives and the sculpture have moved from the timeless past to present realities, now including Ruben's own experience of living "between two worlds." In the 1990s his work began taking on a cathartic function, as a way to deal with his residential school experience and urban exile.

Talking Fish is a fine example of the interweaving of story, moral, and personal experience that gives the artist's work its resonance. After many years in Toronto, Ruben moved to the shores of Lake Simcoe, allowing his artistic practice to combine with his passion for fishing. As he explains, this sculpture grew out of a period of frustration, when it seemed as if the fish were teasing him - jumping up, splashing around, but avoiding his hook. Thinking back to the ways of his ancestors, the artist-fisherman conceived Talking Fish as a form of offering to the spirits. Once the sculpture was completed, the fish allowed themselves to be caught. As Ruben puts it: "The fish took hold of me, tossed me around a bit, taught me a few lessons, and then spat me out!" For the artist, the experience - and the sculpture with its human figure emerging from the fish's mouth - came to represent those situations where we may find ourselves challenged beyond our capabilities. In the process, we may indeed feel swallowed up. Upon resurfacing, we hope to be wiser for the encounter. Talking Fish reminds us of our limitations before the forces of nature and life itself. It also demonstrates the significance and imaginative power of storytelling.