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(Fantasy) Figure with Birds

Karoo Ashevak
(Fantasy) Figure with Birds, 1972
Whalebone, antler, walrus ivory, stone, and wood
48.5 x 47 x 26.5 cm
Gift of John and Mary Robertson, Ottawa
© Public Trustee of Nunavut, Estate of Karoo Ashevak

Karoo Ashevak is regarded as a leading proponent of whalebone sculpture, whose modern sensibility, technical craftsmanship, and legendary personality made him among the most respected and popular of Inuit artists. Although Ashevak, like many others, began carving in 1968 through the government-initiated arts and crafts program, his most prolific period was a brief four years, from 1971 to his death in 1974 at the age of thirty-four. It was in 1971 that John McGrath moved to Taloyoak as the GNWT Industrial Development Officer with his wife, Judy McGrath, a sculptor-weaver. They recognized something exceptional in Ashevak's talents and began encouraging the artist and holding his works for exhibitions.

In 1972, his first solo exhibition was organized by Av Isaacs at the Innuit Gallery in Toronto. The following year, Karoo Ashevak: Spirits took place at the American Indian Art Center in New York. The show was a critical and financial success that brought the artist international recognition. In his home community, the fame propelled him to the status of local hero, and his work was to have a profound influence on the sculptural style of the Kitikmeot region. In 1977, the Winnipeg Art Gallery held a major retrospective simply titled Karoo Ashevak, and in 1994, the National Gallery featured his work in the Inuit galleries, to explore the artist's continued influence twenty years after his death.

In her catalogue essay for the retrospective, Jean Blodgett described (Fantasy) Figure with Birds as "perhaps the most elaborate of Ashevak's work, and is indicative of the complexity of his imagery and form. The number of parts attached to the main body is surpassed only by the amount of smaller details and insets on all the components items.

"The sculpture is composed of six separate pieces - and in the way that Ashevak has placed the figures of the birds opposite the hand and creature to create a balance in the overall grouping exhibits his finely-tuned sense of proportion and composition. The way that he uses the odd, even grotesque shape of the bone to sculptural and expressive advantage is further evidence of his mastery of the whalebone medium and his imaginative use of its organic forms. It is, however, the finishing details such as the incised facial features, the inlaid concentric eyes and teeth, and the polished lustre of the bleached bone that best show his technical finesse and distinguish his work from all others.

Typical of his art, the subject of (Fantasy) Figure with Birds is ambiguous and fantastic. One possible reading is that the figure is a shaman calling upon spirit helpers (the birds and creature) to end a famine (suggested by the gaping mouth placed prominently in the centre); another is that of an Inuk seeking birds as game to end his hunger. In either case, the presentation of the various figures is other-worldly and their interaction lively.