Taipsumane

Unlike the other Books of the Week that we’ve seen so far, Josephina Kalleo’s Taipsumane does most of its talking with images rather than words.  Kalleo has been recognized and celebrated as an artist primarily for the drawings collected in this volume.  You can find the scanned drawings online at the Heritage NL website, along with a good biographical overview and a more detailed background on the series. You should also absolutely check out the exhibition book for Sakkijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut, edited by Heather Igloliorte, which includes some of Kalleo’s work, along with an amazing diversity of other Labrador Inuit art. (Neither book is available electronically, as far as I know, so mark down their titles for when the libraries re-open!)

“Old Days” by Josephina Kalleo, 1984. See her collection at Heritage NL.

Kalleo’s drawings are done in marker, and typically show expansive scenes of everyday life in early-to-mid-twentieth-century Nain.  Kalleo chooses viewpoints that place the viewer at a nostalgic remove, high off the ground, and uses a mixture of perspective techniques to clearly show figures in the middle distance and a background beyond them, often of hills dotted with trees, as in the example here.  Most of the scenes are outdoors, and environmental context is always given, showing the importance of the land for all of the activities taking place.

As you can see, the drawings are detailed and precise, but also simple, without extraneous detail.  As in so much of the best Labrador writing and art, in my opinion, Kalleo’s sense of purpose is uppermost.  She knows exactly what she wants to say, and she says it matter-of-factly, with the self-assurance and precision of someone who knows exactly what she is talking about.  Part of that must surely be the wisdom and experience of an Elder at work.

Beyond Kalleo’s drawings themselves, I am also fascinated by the set of relationships that her approach shares with other minds across Labrador, across Inuit Nunangat, and across different media.  Even though Kalleo’s style and approach are unmistakably her own, and her drawings arise from a lifetime’s intimate knowledge of her home community, no artist is alone, any more than any writer is—and Kalleo puts to paper a whole set of values and ideas that resonate within a broader community of thought. 

The clearest parallel to begin with is the embroidery that was so popular on the North Coast in Kalleo’s generation.  In many ways, from subject matter to style, the drawings and embroideries resemble one another, showing a clear mutual influence between the art forms.

You may remember the group from the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum visited Labrador with the embroideries in their collection, just last year.

Check out the Labrador embroideries in the collection of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College, Maine.

For me, Kalleo’s drawings also call to mind the work of Cape Dorset artist Annie Pootoogook, who addressed different themes from the point of view of a different generation, but in a similar spirit.  Both artists based their drawings on close observation of ordinary life in community for most of their pieces, and both adopt a similar approach to representation, with simple, direct, and forceful drawings.  Pootoogook places her viewer closer to her subject matter, and depicts scenes that are more immediate in her experience than Kalleo’s, which are mainly remembered from her childhood. Nonetheless, but in many of Pootogook’s pieces, both her eye for composition and her use of colour are reminiscent of Kalleo—though Pootoogook uses pencil crayons rather than markers.

Another telling parallel is drawn even in Kalleo’s full title, Taipsumane: A Collection of Labrador Stories.  Kalleo worked for Torngâsok Cultural Centre and published with them, providing further evidence (in case any was needed) of the importance she placed on community heritage.  Still, “stories” is on the surface, at least, a surprising choice of words. There is little text in the book, though Kalleo does include short paragraphs with her drawings (given in Inuttut and English translation), and these fall somewhere in between captions and complementary narratives. 

Nonetheless, Kalleo’s drawings are themselves stories.  She gives no still lifes or portraits or landscapes empty of people.  Each of her drawings shows people in action, doing things.  In a way, her art tells us the same sorts of stories that one tells a child about days gone by: exactly the kind of stories that go in Them Days, in fact.  And that’s the translation that Heritage NL and the Rooms give for “Taipsumane”—“Them Days.”  (The Labrador Virtual Museum’s online Inuttut-English dictionary gives “back then” as a similar alternative, citing Beatrice Watts and Sarah Townley.)

This wealth of cross-connections and common threads with other artists and other forms only underscores the relevance of Kalleo’s work. Is it any wonder that her drawings are still so engaging today?

Student Cheat Sheet

Taipsumane, by Josephina Kalleo (1984)

Author.  Josephina Kalleo (1920-1993) was an Labrador Inuk artist from Nain.  She spoke and wrote in Inuttut, and late in her life worked for Torngâsok Cultural Centre, an institution devoted to Labrador Inuit heritage (now superseded by Illusuak).
Summary.  Taipsumane is an art book, presenting a series of 45 drawings of traditional everyday life in Nain, accompanied by short texts in Inuttut and English translation, and sometimes internally annotated with labels.  The scenes are idealized and based on Kalleo's memory of childhood.  They are undated and somewhat timeless, but generally depict the first half of the 20th century.
Origin.  Projects like Taipsumane arise from partnerships.  Kalleo's idea of passing on her knowledge of traditional ways through art garnered the interest and support of Torngâsok and the Memorial University Art Gallery, leading to both a book and an exhibition, as well as a supporting grant from the federal government.
Legacy. Josephina Kalleo is widely remembered for Taipsumane.  Art history professor and Labrador Inuk Heather Igloliorte calls the drawing series "one of the best descriptions of transitional Labrador Inuit life." Kalleo's drawings reside in the permanent collection at the Rooms in St. John's, but have also travelled the country with the SakKijajuk exhibit of Nunatsiavut art, curated by Igloliorte.  Taipsumane occasioned many reviews when it came out, and despite her comparatively limited output, many sources include entries on Kalleo as a notable contributor to the art history both of the Inuit and of the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Working on a book report for school?  Here’s how to cite this article:

Mills, Morgon. “Book of the Week: Taipsumane.” LILA Online. Labrador Institute, 5 June 2020, lilaonline.ca/2020/06/05/taipsumane/. Accessed [today’s date].

2 thoughts on “Taipsumane

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  1. Her use of drawings to tell stories is very interesting. We have learned since coming to Newfoundland that the culture here is more an oral one than a visual one but Kalleo seems to be doing the opposite. Perhaps this is not as true for Labrador as for the island. I was also surprised by her use of markers.(Crayons for Pootoogook) Would crayons and markers be more readily available than other media? Her work is certainly delightful and I would be interested in seeing more.

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