New book chronicles ups and downs of unusual Inuit artist

The supernatural success of a pioneering print maker


A dark place where scary, long-fingered creatures taunt hunters and caribou – that's the terrifying mix of the real and the legendary brought to life in prints by Tivi Etok, a Kangiqsualujjuaq elder and artist.

Etok, born in 1929 at Qirnituartuq, a camp near today's community of Kangiqsualujjuaq, became a printmaker during the 1970s, and was the first Inuk printmaker to see a collection of his own prints released in 1975.

Now, more than 35 years later, everyone can appreciate Etok's work and life, thanks to the trilingual book, Tivi Etok: the life and art of an Inuit elder, recently published by Nunavik's Avataq Cultural Institute in Inuttitut, English and French.

"His unique artistic voice won him the admiration of art dealers, the public and his peers," says Jobie Weetaluktuk in his introduction to the book.

Weetaluktuk, who co-edited the book with Robyn Bryant, says Etok's depictions of unworldly beings – the frightening tuurngait, mittiliit, inugagulliit and ikuutajuut, show "the supernatural is not only an important part of Tivi's prints but of his whole life experience."

The 220-page book includes interviews with Etok conducted by Weetaluktuk and Molly Emudluk, along with reproductions of Etok's prints, vintage photos and full-colour photos by Avataq employee Robert Fréchette.

Etok describes how he started drawing as a child, with sticks in the sand. He drew animals and villages, even though he says he had never seen a building.

After a print workshop in Povungnituk, Etok immediately saw that he could transform his artistic talent into a moneymaking job.

At the same time, Etok also recognized that producing quality work – making "good art" he could be proud of – was the most important part of being an artist.

"Like any business, you can be successful as an artist only if you run things properly," Etok says.

Even in choosing the subject matter of his art, printmaker Etok was canny, noting Inuit artists couldn't select just any ­legend to depict, but had to figure out which part of a legend was best to illustrate.

In this, Etok had an advantage over many contemporary artists, in that supernatural beings, such as the bird-like mitiliit, were part of his personal landscape.

Etok relates how, while out hunting, he thought that a human-looking mitilik on the ice was a seal basking on the ice. Etok tried to shoot at it, but it dove into the water.

"There used to be such creatures. Hunters used to stalk mitiliit, thinking that it was a seal when a hunter got close enough the mitilik would the run and attack the hunter. They had knives, these creatures had human bodies and were covered in feathers. The feathers had the same pattern as an eider duck's feathers, hence the name," Etok recounts.

But at the height of his artistic career Etok tumbled, and "lost it all," by selling his artist's drawings, the original sketches from which limited edition prints are made.

This was a no-no during those years when the Inuit art was new and struggling to find its niche.

Etok found himself blacklisted.

"Looking back, he said it gave him an opportunity to reflect and some time for a much-needed break, but it was something he was never able to overcome," Weetaluktuk notes.

This book about Etok would likely not exist if Etok hadn't fostered a young student, Donat Savoie, when he came to Kangiqsualujjuaq in 1967 to do field work.

Savoie went on to become a powerful bureaucrat and negotiator with the federal department of Indian and Northern Affairs – as well as a welcome, behind-the-scenes supporter of cash-strapped Avataq, which received no direct funding through the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

At the Makivik Corp.'s 2006 annual general meeting, Etok shared some memories of his first encounter with the young Savoie.

"I ignored him at first. My wife asked him if he was being properly fed and then he came in," Etok said.

"He told me later it was so good to eat a home-cooked meal. Since then, he has been like a son, I'm always disciplining him in Inutittut, instructing him in our ways, giving him good sound advice, encouraging him to take on these kind of jobs and always to keep trying to get funds to help the Inuit population."

In his personal introduction to the book, "Tivi Etok," Savoie writes how "Tivi taught me so many things that I make use of every day."

For a glimpse of the world, which Tivi lived in and shared with Savoie, his family and the public through his art, Tivi Etok is definitely worth a read.

"Tivi Etok" can be ordered for $34.95 directly from:

Avataq Cultural institute
215 Redfern #400
Westmount, QC H3Z 3L5


Le monde de Tivi Etok: la vie et l'art d'un ainé inuit de Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik, or The World of Tivi Etok: the life and art of an Inuit elder from Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik. ISBN 978-2-89544-099-4

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