Nancy Pukingrnak was born in the Chantrey Inlet area of the Keewatin region of the Northwest Territories. As a young child she led a traditional nomadic existence at the inlet and along the banks of the Back River, living in igloos in the winter and tents in the summer and subsisting on a diet of caribou and fish. She was brought to the nearby settlement of Baker Lake in the spring of 1958 following a difficult winter marked by a severe shortage of land foods in the Back River area. In a dramatic rescue by the Canadian armed forces, a starving Pukingrnak and her mother, Jessie Oonark, were airlifted to safety. Pukingrnak settled permanently in Baker Lake and married shortly thereafter. She has given birth to eleven children, seven of whom are still living.
With encouragement from her mother, who went on to become one of Canada’s most successful artists, and her sister, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk—both enthusiastically involved in the arts and crafts program initiated at Baker Lake by the Federal government in the early 1960s—Pukingrnak started carving in 1962 and did her first drawings in 1969. Pukingrnak’s other siblings, Josiah Nuilaalik, Janet Kigusiuq, Mary Yuusipik, Miriam Nanurluk, and William Noah, also became established, successful artists in their own right.
Pukingrnak has forged an equally successful name for herself in the field of Inuit art. She is best known for her drawings and sculpture but also works in fabric. Her grandmother’s stories of bygone days and Inuit mythology as well as her own childhood memories serve as an endless source of inspiration. Three recurrent themes dominate Pukingrnak’s work—intimate domestic scenes of life on the land, lively depictions of ‘Qiviuq’, the legendary Inuit hero, and graphic portrayals of ‘Qavaq’, the mythological multi-headed creature with clawed hands and feet and a tail who preys on human beings.
In her art making, Pukngrnak combines old skills with new ones. She is intimately familiar with the traditional life of the Inuit and is herself a meticulous sewer of caribou skin clothing. Yet exposure to books, magazines, and television over the past thirty years has had a profound influence on her view of the world. Pukingrnak’s incorporation of Western conventions of spatial perspective distinguishes her art from that of older Inuit artists who draw without reference to space.
“North American Women Artists of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical Dictionary”, Marie Bouchard, 1995.