As one of the eldest of the original group of carvers still working in Baker Lake, Barnabus Arnasungaaq’s work has been an influence in his community and on the art of the Keewatin for four decades.
For the nomadic hunting groups of the Keewatin area (to the northwest of Hudson Bay), the late 1950s were a most challenging time in their history. With the collapse of the caribou herds and the subsequent famine of 1956-57, it was the decision of the federal government to evacuate the area, moving the Inuit into the existing villages for medical care and to establish them in permanent settlements in the hopes of ending the never-ending cycle of feast or famine.
For the new residents of these communities it was a difficult transition period: moving from the nomadic life into the villages presented many problems and employment possibilities were very scarce. Government programs to foster economic opportunities were initiated, with varying degrees of success.
Since the introduction of carving programs in Baker Lake in the early 1960s, Barnabus Arnasungaaq has been a major force and contributor to what clearly became the overall style of the tundra artists. Showing with the first exhibition of the art of the Keewatin held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1964, he has continued to make work that embodies that wonderful ideographic quality that we have come to associate with the tundra communities that make art.
The hard black steatite available to the carvers in Baker Lake was not a stone that lent itself easily to perforation or fine detail, however the Keewatin artists defined readily identifiable personal styles where emphasis was placed on tactile quality and a certain monumentality and timelessness of image. The sculpture of Barnabus has a stoic enduring quality and remarkable presence that has found a large audience around the world.
Spirit Wrestler Gallery, 2001. Artist photo courtesy David Ford.
Barnabus Arnasungaaq is married to graphic artist and carver Fanny Arngnakik. Their sons David and Norman are carvers as well.
Excerpt courtesy Inuit Art Section, INAC, 1997.