Nunavut’s Matchbox Gallery puts its work on display in Toronto
"I wanted people to see the collectivity of what we do"
TORONTO — When you turn a corner into the Museum of Inuit Art’s exhibition area, an imposing ceramic figure greets you.
The intricate figure of a man has faces etched into his body and his outstretched arms hold a qulliq; inside it there’s a smaller man holding a tiny qulliq.
Delicately carved by artists Pierre Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok, this is one of the prized pieces from the permanent collection of Rankin Inlet’s Matchbox Gallery.
And it’s on display for the first time in Toronto, alongside other impressive art pieces which were made at Nunavut’s only ceramics-producing studio.
But more than ceramics meet the eye; beyond the figure is a lithograph by one of the Matchbox Gallery’s founders, Jim Shirley — the New York City native who, along with his artist wife, helped launch the gallery 27 years ago.
It’s the first time Shirley — or any non-Inuk — has shown his own work as part of a Matchbox exhibit.
Beyond Shirley’s piece is a coloured pencil sketch done by Jessie Kenalogak, which gives way to ornate ceramic pots and expressive polar bears
But there’s a method to this mix, said the Museum of Inuit Art’s curator, Alysa Procida.
“When you walk into the Matchbox Gallery, there are drawings everywhere,” she said. “The two-dimensional work is so important to the ceramic work.”
“We wanted to present the idea that everything is connected. One artist’s work is impacted by another.”
Not only that, but many of the pieces in the collection were created by two or more artists.
Even pieces that are credited to a single artist usually had input from many hands, Shirley said.
“It’s a very human undertaking,” he said of the creative experience in the Rankin Inlet studio. “This is a time where I wanted people to see the collectivity of what we do.”
The Matchbox Gallery: A Retrospective opened April 10 at the MIA, located along Toronto’s downtown waterfront.
Procida is giddy about showing visitors one particular piece called Enchanted Bear, a richly detailed ceramic carving of figures of men and birds hanging off a fierce-looking bear.
It’s a perfect example of that collaboration Shirley talks about; it was created by four Matchbox artists — Leo Napayok, Jack Nuviyak, Roger Aksadjuak and John Kurok.
Their combined efforts give it a narrative quality not often seen in traditional ceramic work.
Another piece by Pierre Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok, called Giving Thanks, tells the legend of an Inuit shaman that was related to Aupilardjuk through family members.
“When someone was sick, a person would spit in the palms of the shaman,” Aupilarduk explained. “The spit would form into the figure of a small human. If the human walked off of the hand, if meant that [sick person] would die.
“If the human walked up the arm, the sick person would heal.”
The ceramic figure has two large arms outstretched, with tiny human figures climbing up each arm towards the figure’s shoulders.
“This [piece] keeps me healthy,” Aupilardjuk joked.
Less funny was the process of getting the ceramics from Rankin Inlet, Shirley and Aupilardjuk said. Each piece had to be painstakingly wrapped in shredded paper and bubble wrap, and loaded into various forms of transportation.
The works, and two artists, were flown to Toronto courtesy of First Air.
But now, Shirley said, it’s time to find a permanent home for the collection, in a gallery that can care for its pieces over the long-term.
“It’s our legacy,” Shirley said. “We’re looking to find a home for this precious stuff.”