Traditions Transformed

The Trailblazers of Contemporary Inuit Art
May 22, 2023

Looking back at the dynamic yet still relatively young history of Inuit art, can we mark the artists that demonstrated a contemporary turning point – the forerunners of a new era? Within the realm of sculpture, Inuvialuit cousins Bill Nasogaluak, Abraham Anghik Ruben, and David Ruben Piqtoukun come to mind. Each were born in the Northwest Territories in the 1950s and are survivors of Residential School and Federal Day School. Their trajectories into adulthood involved travel – Abraham Anghik enrolled at the University of Alaska’s Native Art Centre in 1971 and left school in 1975 knowing that he would pursue a career as an artist. [1] David Ruben moved South at the age of 18 and Bill, not long after. These artists went on to become masters at fusing the Inuit stories and traditions from their childhood with a radically Western carving style obtained while travelling across both the country and the world.  


Across the country in Nunatsiavut, Michael Massie began mixing non-traditional media with stone, ivory, and bone in the late 1980s. A trained metalsmith, Massie’s painstaking attention to detail (required when working with delicate metals, like silver) birthed a style and subject entirely unique to the artist himself. Massie was a true game-changer in challenging the public perception of what Inuit art was, incorporating materials like silver and exotic woods that are not local to the high Arctic, a region where many assume most artists live. Instead, Massie’s incredible work, created at his studio in Kippens, Newfoundland, helped propel Nunatsiavut’s artists to national recognition.  


Some artists paid little attention to traditional conventions of Inuit art to create work that was unprecedentedly contemporary, completely subverting what the average Inuit art collector expected to see. The work of Jutai Toonoo is a great example of breaking convention. Originally working as a sculptor, Jutai took up drawing in the late 1990s. This unleashed a stream of expressions allowed by coloured pencil and oil pastel that the cold, hard surface of stone could not quite convey. Remarkably, Jutai was among the very few artists of his time – with the exception of his sister, sculptor Oviloo Tunnillie – to transform the subject of the self-portrait into a reflection on inner contemplation and emotional expression.


Both Jutai and Oviloo were also trailblazers in depicting the nude body in their work, revisiting the subject again and again. This was a fierce deviation from traditional Inuit art, where, not unlike the Renaissance tradition, few nude subjects were found beyond depictions of the mythological sea goddess Sedna. For these reasons, Jutai and Oviloo will forever be known as two of the most convention-challenging artists of Inuit art. 



1. Darlene Coward Wight, Abraham Anghik Ruben, (Winnipeg: Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2001), p. 11. 

2. David Ruben Piqtoukun, “About David,”



First Arts is proud to offer exceptional works by artists Michael Massie, Jutai Toonoo, Oviloo Tunnillie, Bill Nasogaluak, Abraham Anghik Ruben, David Ruben Piqtoukun, and Arnaqu Ashevak in our forthcoming June 2023 auction. 


Lot 46


Jarred, c. 2005

sterling silver, antler, ivory, mahogany, cocobolo and cue ball, 6 x 10.5 x 3 in (15.2 x 26.7 x 7.6 cm)

ESTIMATE: $3,500 — $5,000 

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Lot 96


Shape Shifting Shaman, 18 April 2001

limestone, moose bone, antler, mahogany, and ebony, 14.25 x 11 x 5.5 in (36.2 x 27.9 x 14 cm)

ESTIMATE: $6,000 — $9,000 


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Lot 93


Composition (Self-Portrait), 2007/08

oilstick on paper, 45 x 45 in (114.3 x 114.3 cm)

ESTIMATE: $6,000 — $9,000 


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Lot 5


Fly, c. late 1980s

stone, 3.5 x 13.5 x 11.5 in (8.9 x 34.3 x 29.2 cm)

ESTIMATE: $2,500 — $3,500 

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Lot 130


Resting Woman, 2000

stone, 6 x 19.5 x 7.5 in (15.2 x 46.5 x 19.1 cm)

ESTIMATE: $8,000 — $12,000 


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Lot 47


Crying Shaman Transformation, 1998

stone with inset glass, 10.75 x 8.25 x 6.25 in (27.3 x 21 x 15.9 cm)

ESTIMATE: $4,000 — $6,000


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Lot 34


Shaman with Spirit Helpers, 1979

whale bone, stone antler, and baleen, 20.25 x 18.5 x 6.75 in (51.4 x 47 x 17.1 cm)

ESTIMATE: $5,000 — $8,000

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Lot 95


Bird Shaman, 1997

stone, 24.5 x 34 x 14 in (62.2 x 86.4 x 35.6 cm)

ESTIMATE: $8,000 — $12,000


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Lot 33


Nuna, 1995

Brazilian soapstone and African wonderstone, 17 x 11 x 5.25 in (43.2 x 27.9 x 13.3 cm)

ESTIMATE: $8,000 — $12,000

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Lot 45


Bear Man Dancing on The Moon, 2022

cast and patinated bronze, 34.25 x 39.25 x 6.5 in (87 x 99.7 x 16.5 cm)

ESTIMATE: $12,000 — $18,000

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Lot 92


Evening, 2001

black ink and coloured pencil on paper, 20 x 26 in (50.8 x 66 cm)

ESTIMATE: $2,000 — $3,000

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Toutes ces œuvres magnifiques devraient aller dans un musée !! !
24 May 2023
Remerciements et félicitations très chaleureux pour cet article qui contribue à mieux intégrer les nouvelles générations au "corpus " des artistes inuit reconnus.
Jean-Luc Gautier-Gentès
24 May 2023

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