ELIZABETH NUTARAALUK AULATJUT (1914-1998) ARVIAT (ESKIMO POINT)
Six Faces, late 1980s
stone and antler, 12 x 21 x 5 in (30.5 x 53.3 x 12.7 cm)
ESTIMATE: $10,000 — $15,000
PRICE REALIZED: $20,400
Waddington's Auctions, Spring 1996, Lot 1135;
Acquired from the above by a Private Collection, Montreal.
The onetime matriarch of the famous Ahiarmiut (Caribou Inuit) camp at Ennadai Lake, 400 kilometres west of Arviat, Elizabeth Nutaraaluk began carving while still living on the land, trading small pieces for tobacco. She took it up seriously in the mid 1960s. She is best known for her extraordinarily moving depictions of mothers and children (see Lot 59). Nutaraaluk's overall aesthetic tended toward the primal but her classic works from the 1970s could display remarkable delicacy as well. As she became older her style became ever more raw and expressionistic, and the psychological impact of her works more intense. Nutaraaluk kept carving even as she began to lose first her strength in the late 1980s and then her eyesight in the early 1990s.
The artist created mostly blocky human heads in the last years of her career; these are sometimes nicknamed her "Easter Island heads." Most startling, however, are the small number of stark mask-like heads and faces she carved in the late 1980s, in which she utilized antler as a secondary inlay material (see references). We described the example formerly in the Albrecht collection as a "mask of almost frightening bleakness."
Six Faces is the largest, certainly the most complex, possibly the most primal, and arguably the most important work of the series. The image is so abstracted and so raw that the subject matter evades many viewers at first. It is only when we realize that the seven inset eyes are shared amongst the six faces that Nutaraaluk's truly extraordinary vision is revealed. Even "bleak" may be a euphemistic description of the emotions conveyed here - words fail us; we are truly thunderstruck by the intensity of the image. We doubt that it depicts a family, in the normal sense of the word; more likely Nutaraaluk has populated this veritable mountainside with ancestral spirits or ghosts - perhaps the ghosts of the people lost during the famines of the 1950s. Astounding.
References: For stylistically similar depictions of a single human face by Nutaraaluk see Ingo Hessel, Arctic Spirit: Inuit Art from the Albrecht Collection at the Heard Museum (Douglas & McIntyre/Heard Museum, 2006), cat. 132, and Walker's Auctions, Nov. 2016, Lot 190.