Arts & Culture

Curator’s Choice: Walrus Spirit by Osuitok Ipeelee depicts strength of Inuit culture

Ottawa is a treasure trove of history, and so, too, are its national museums. For The Big 150, we asked curators to select one rare or unsung artifact from their permanent collection that tells a compelling story about Canada.

Chosen by: Christine Lalonde,
Indigenous art curator, National Gallery of Canada

National Gallery of Canada curator Christine Lalonde with one of her favourite pieces, Walrus spirit by Osuitok Ipeelee. Photo by Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

Why did you choose this object?
As of May 2017, it has been in the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, which were being created to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary. Characteristic of Osuitok’s best carvings, Walrus-spirit is a top-heavy piece, with the torso of the massive sea mammal arching out above the slightly turned-in human feet at the base. It is a dynamic depiction of the transformation of a female shaman into a powerful walrus spirit. It is a marvel to think how Osuitok, working largely with only hand tools, made the locally-quarried Cape Dorset stone appear fluid, capturing the motion of the walrus spirit changing form.

Why is it important to Canadian history?

Since the 1950s, when stone sculptures by Inuit artists captured the admiration of a new audience, Inuit art has become a deeply rooted symbol of Canadian identity. The rise of Inuit sculpture as an art form coincided with the massive changes to Inuit society, as families were forced from their hunting camps to settle in permanent communities. Because their visual expressions were able to transcend barriers of language and geographic distance, Inuit artists were able to counter stories of deprivation with images of a strong cultural heritage … During this period of turmoil and forced change to a way of life … artists nonetheless created magnificent artworks such as Walrus-spirit. It is a testament to creativity in the face of adversity.

The sculpture was made with stone from Cape Dorset, using mostly hand tools. Photo by Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio