Mask depicting Natchiaq (Seal), 1996 by Larry Ulaaq Ahvakana, Inupiaq
Mask depicting Natchiaq (Seal), 1996 by Larry Ulaaq Ahvakana, Inupiaq yellow cedar, pigment 8" high x 8" wide x 2" deep
Lawrence Ahvakana grew up within a Native heritage that did not separate artistic creativity from everyday experience. His mother was a "skin-sewer", who created beautiful clothing for members of her community, other Alaskans and tourists. His older sister is renowned artist Susie Bevins Qimmiqsak. Ahvakana studied at the influential Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, Cooper Union School of Art and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1972. Ahvakana returned to the Northwest settling near Seattle and spends about a quarter of the year on his tribal land near Barrow in Beechy Point, Alaska.
In Ahvakana's life and art, distinctions between tradition and innovation, primordial belief and socio-economic needs, enduring rituals and modern realities are unusually blurred. Widely exhibited and collected since the late 1960's, Ahvakana's work bridges heritage and novelty. His art renders a way of life entwined with the past. As a Native American, he exists both at the foundation and at a distance from contemporary life and culture. Ahvakana's authenticity and identity as an Inupiaq Eskimo is unquestioned, even as he now lives hundreds of miles to the south of where he and his forbears had always dwelled.
His ability to flourish as an artist necessitated his departure from Alaska, both to learn the arts he now excels at and to find an audience for what he does. But as surely as he needed to leave Alaska for his art, he must and does return regularly to feed his soul and reconnect with his subject, the traditional Inupiaq way of life.
From the start, even given his sophisticated training and study in the Northeast and Southwest, his unusually large stone carvings captured the quotidian needs and animating rituals of his original Eskimo hunting and fishing community. Foreboding climatic circumstances and a subsistence economy besets his subjects. A compulsively active art-maker, over the last three decades, he has become adept at manipulating a variety of media that include various stones from alabaster to marble, wood, ivory, glass, bronze, and other metals and often huge preliminary drawings to realize his figures and animals.
Ahvakana's sculptures of guardian figures, walrus deities, and winter festival participants are perhaps more real and vital than what they portray. Like his audience, he venerates a culture that in the near future may only remain in the form of art. Working thousands of miles away, Ahvakana vigorously glorifies his traditions to assure they might be inherited.
- Patterson Sims, former curator at the Seattle Art Museum, the Whitney and the New York MoMA