MANASIE AKPALIAPIK (1955-)
Private Collection, Toronto, ON
The subject of transformation is a central concern in Inuit art. It is understood in traditional Inuit culture that humans have the ability to become animals and vice versa, and that the boundaries between realms are not fixed. Stories are told about animals who assumed human shape and lived among the people, speaking their language. Similarly, humans were able to shift into animal form in order to learn—and subsequently teach—their ways, or to escape serious danger.
Shaman Transforming elicits a tremendous feeling of tension and energy. We see a shaman being enveloped by the raw power of nature, by magic. He tilts his head back, mouth open, in an expression that might be interpreted as pain, awe or ecstasy—or a combination thereof. His right hand remains human, curled slightly, while his left side has transformed into the form of two geese. Between the bird’s heads, another, wilder mouth has opened beneath flared, walrus-like nostrils, echoing that of the shaman. Wings seem to sprout from this amorphous mass. We feel unable to figure out where man ends and beast begins, or indeed which direction the transformation is headed.
Manasie balances the impressionistic with the literal, harnessing the natural curves of the whale bone to superb effect. The overall form is fluid, with certain edges of the carving seeming to melt and fade. Sinuous, abstract curves suggest the mutability of this transformative moment, while the evocative precision of details such as the inset ivory eyes and carved teeth of the shaman remind us of the concrete humanity present amidst the supernatural.
There is also a beautiful connectivity between subject and material: from an animal’s bone emerges a portrait of a human, who is in turn returning into animal form. Or perhaps it is the other way around?