Nunatsiaq News
FEATURES June 12, 2008 - 3:00 pm

Kavavaow Mannomee breathes new life into Inuit art with his Disneyesque fantasies

Portrait of the artist as a slyly subversive satirist

JOHN THOMPSON

A raven smoking a cigarette is just one of many dream-like images that has rattled through the head of Kavavaow Mannomee over the years and ended up neatly drawn in ink and pencil crayon on Japanese rice paper.

Collections of Mannomee's work are on display in Iqaluit's Nunatta Sunakkutaangit museum, and Toronto's Feheley Fine Arts gallery. Both exhibits provide a glimpse into the Cape Dorset artist's fertile imagination.

It's a place where nomadic hunters encounter an oversized television set on the ice, and try to decide whether to settle down and watch the static or to poke it with a harpoon.

It's where the little people, or Inuralaat, may steal an ulu to play on as a seesaw.

It's where a polar bear may decide to smoke a pipe.

It's also a place where Jesus watches the space shuttle Challenger explode, where an Arctic shorebird may encounter Donald Duck, and where seagulls help regurgitate homes lost to the South Asia tsunami.

For 21 years, Mannomee, 49, has been a fixture at Cape Dorset's famous West Baffin Eskimo Co-op. As a master printer, he spends much of his time applying colourful paint to stone blocks and stamping the images to paper.

He's worked with the co-op's best artists for many years, and prints of his own art are often featured in Dorset Fine Arts' annual catalogue.

But the Dorset prints only give a glimpse of Mannomee's artistic vision.

The Dorset catalogue only includes prints considered to be sure sells. And, until recently, that meant most subject matter was limited to animal transformations, hunting scenes and other subject matter that's easily recognized as Inuit art.

That's changing, following the critical acclaim of Annie Pootoogook's portrayal of gritty, everyday life in Nunavut, with her drawings of children playing Super Nintendo, or a woman shuffling backwards into the cold Arctic wind.

Now, growing attention to Mannomee's work may help further expand what's considered Inuit art. If Pootoogook draws real life in the North, Mannomee draws the dream life - a place where Inuit myth and Walt Disney cartoons and world news collide.

Pat Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts, has watched Mannomee's work mature over the past 15 years, to a point where his technical skill is "extraordinary," and his unlikely combination of subject matter, unique.

She remembers being "absolutely blown away" by his portrayal of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which an aircraft is set to collide with the Twin Towers. Aircraft and towers alike are in the process of transforming into birds, and the whole scene is littered with crucifixes.

Environmental concerns also loom large in Mannomee's drawings, where we find whales trapped in nets, and a polar bear treading water with the help of a hunk of ice in the shape of a life preserver.

In these pictures Feheley finds a rare quality among artists: the ability to make a statement about big issues while managing to be "never maudlin, and never too tough to make you uncomfortable."

Little people, or Inuralaat, take up a big place in his art. They're not much bigger than a snow bunting, but strong enough to haul a walrus. As a child, Mannomee's father would warn that if you saw their tracks to stay away, or else they may shoot you with a bow and arrow or poison blow dart.

But, in Mannomee's art, Inuralaat are more playful than menacing. One shimmies up a table lamp. Another has turned an ulu into a teeter-totter. And, on a number of occasions, they're making off over the tundra with tools they've taken from unsuspecting Inuit.

Transformations are familiar territory in Inuit art, with a shaman turning into a bear, or perhaps a goose turning into a seal. But a bird whose feet have turned into a harpoon? So it is in one drawing by Mannomee. And, perching on the bird's beak, is an Inuralaaq.

And, in the Iqaluit museum, one drawing portrays a young student asleep at his desk, dreaming of animals. It's him, Mannomee explains.

It seems he's been dreaming ever since, and committing his visions to paper. For that we can be thankful, for as a result, the world of Inuit art may be a bigger, more expansive place.

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