Joe Talirunnilik, one of the great storytellers and chroniclers of Inuit art, turned his life experiences almost into the stuff of legend. It seems appropriate then that even his date of birth is shrouded in mystery; his own estimates ranged from as early as 1893 to as late as 1906. Talirunnilik translated his most famous personal adventure, a harrowing story of migration and shipwreck, ingenuity and survival (which occurred when he was still a young child), into at least two dozen major sculptures and scores of prints and drawings. His carved “Migrations” are among the most famous icons of Inuit art; the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts houses one of the earliest known examples.
Talirunnilik carved the stone block for this print himself, creating a lively, rustic image full of spontaneity and charm. He incorporated his tale of marine disaster into a much larger composition, adding apparently unrelated scenes of animals, hunting, camp life and overland travel in almost encyclopaedic detail. We use the word “apparently” advisedly because in Talirunnilik’s imagination, one narrative often seems to spring from or flow into another, much in the spirit of traditional Inuit storytelling. The text inscribed directly into the print stone describes life on the land. Talirunnilik frequently incorporated explanatory or narrative texts to drawings and prints, and sometimes even appended them to sculptures.
During his lifetime, Talirunnilik was not particularly respected as an artist by his peers and was locally considered to be somewhat of an oddball. Nonetheless, he persevered almost obsessively, sure of his history and equally sure of his path. In the end, his artistic journey turned out to be as compelling as his personal one, and today Joe Talirunnilik is widely considered to be the greatest Nunavik artist of his time.