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Nunavut man recalls grandfather whose carvings are on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Bobby Suluk thought his grandfather's carvings could be considered simple, back when he was a boy. He never dreamed that one day his grandfather's work would become widely known outside Nunavut.

'I don't recall [thinking] that they would become very important or very popular' Bobby Suluk says

Carvings that are now part of a multimedia exhibit called 'Naak silavit qeqqa?' at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory describes the carvers as 'incredible philosophers,' who made carvings as an expression of their thoughts. (Submitted by Laakuluk Williamson Bathory)

Bobby Suluk remembers just a few details about his time with his late grandfather, John Pangnark.

One is of sleepovers at his grandparents' home in Arviat, Nunavut, where bedtime was at 6 p.m. so as to prepare for their early wakeup — at 3 a.m.

Another is of his grandfather's dog team, which Suluk recalls, he never rode too fast. 

But above all, Suluk remembers his grandfather's soapstone carvings.

John Pangnark was a carver who became known for his minimalist style. His carvings are featured in a new exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Submitted by Laakuluk Williamson Bathory)

"At first, when I used to watch him do his carving at that time when I was a small boy, I don't recall [thinking] that they would become very important or very popular," Suluk said.

The carvings were simple, thought Suluk at the time. His grandfather could craft them fairly quickly, and then he'd sell them to buy food or other goods.

"It didn't take that long to finish his carving before he would take them to the art and craft centre."

He remembers one carving of an Inuk, which featured just "his eyes, nose and mouth," he said. 

Pangnark, who lived from 1920 to 1980, was most active as a carver in the 1960s. He became known for his minimalist style and abstract carvings of human figures.

But never did Suluk imagine when he was younger that his grandfather's carvings would be collected by an art gallery in the South.

Naak Silavit Qeqqa?

Pangnark's carvings are currently part of a multimedia exhibit called Naak silavit qeqqa? at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The show opened on July 16.

The carvings sit among other Inuit artists' carvings, alongside a double-sided video installation called Silaup Putunga (2018), by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory and her long-time collaborator, Jamie Griffiths. The 35-minute video includes, among other things, a Greenlandic mask dance performed on Frobisher Bay.

The title of the exhibit, translated from Kalaallisut (Greenlandic Inuktitut), means 'Where is the middle of your sila?' where "sila" refers to an Inuktuk term for "knowledge of the land, water, ice and environment," according to Williamson Bathory. 

The carvings in the exhibit are part of a collection by Williamson Bathory's late father, Robert G. Williamson, and mother Dr. Karla Jessen Williamson.

Part of her work for the exhibit involved finding out the proper birthplaces of the artists, Williamson Bathory told CBC News.

"In the information that's stored at the Art Gallery of Ontario, it just had, you know, 'born in Rankin Inlet, and died in Rankin Inlet' or something like that," she said. 

But many of the carvings were created in the 1960s and 1970s. 

"It's obvious that Inuit were not born in Rankin Inlet, because it didn't exist when they were born," she said.

One of the carvings by John Pangark. (Submitted by Laakuluk Williamson Bathory)

Williamson Bathory put the question instead to artists' family members to update the gallery collection

'Incredible philosophers'

Williamson Bathory said it's been a "beautiful experience" to revisit the carvings.

"All the carvings were … made by my father's friends and the carvings themselves were a part of my childhood growing up,' Williamson Bathory said.

"Being able to go back and be with them and feel my father's energy – he passed away 12 years ago now – and feel the energy of all the artists and their friendships and the conversations, that was very touching."

Williamson Bathory said she wants people who see the carvings to know the intellectual aspect of the art.

"I would like people to know that these incredible philosophers, these artists, they made these small carvings as an expression of their thoughts," she said.

A sign posted alongside the collected carvings at the Art Gallery of Ontario. (Submitted by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory)

She points to one abstract carving called "mother and child."

"The more that you look at it, you can see that it is a person wearing an amauti with a baby on her back. But you have to stare at it a long time," she said.

"I want people to really imagine these people who lived very full lives on the land and had very intellectual minds that they poured into their art and poured into their conversations.

"And, people like my father were very lucky to be able to be in conversation with them."

Bittersweet

Suluk is happy to see the recognition.

"I'm quite happy that he became very popular, and that his carvings were very liked by a lot of people," he said.

However, Suluk said he still doesn't own any of his grandfather's carvings for himself.

He said he came close once — before Suluk knew his grandfather's art had become more widely known, he tried to buy a sculpture he recognized as his grandfather's being sold online — but it was pricey.

"I just told [the seller] that the carving was made by my grandfather … But [the seller] insisted that if I wanted to buy it, I would have to pay so much money," he said, adding that he ended up dropping the deal. 

"We never used to have that much money growing up. I don't own any of his carvings today."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amy Tucker

Journalist

Amy Tucker is a digital reporter with CBC North. She can be reached at amy.tucker@cbc.ca.

With interviews by Cindy Alorut

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