Angus Cockney explores storytelling through tales of the 12 moons
Inuvialuit artist Angus Cockney’s latest project interprets Inuit stories of the year’s 12 moons as they were handed down through his family.
The work, Ataa! Soona Luna? – or Listen! What Moon? – is designed to highlight the importance of sharing traditional knowledge through oral storytelling.
A free presentation takes place at Yellowknife’s Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre at 7pm on Thursday, September 22.
Below, read a transcript of Cabin Radio’s full interview with Cockney, exploring how residential school and travel around Canada helped him to reconnect with traditional art.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Megan Miskiman: Tell me about the history of your art.
Angus Cockney: I’m from Tuktoyaktuk, born and raised, and I spent a lot of time in the North. In my early years, we were in the era of the residential school heyday. I spent 13 years there in Inuvik, moved south for many years, then went back north in 1988.
I needed to rekindle or rediscover my Inuvialuit culture, because I was separated – with residential school and living in the south, I had very little contact with the lifestyle and the people. Rediscovering who I was? It wasn’t just about getting back to the hunting, and fishing, and rediscovering family members. I wanted to take it further and I started reading my grandfather’s book again. I was fascinated with all the traditional knowledge that he had shared there. I was glad he had written all those stories down. Back then, in ’88 or ’89, I decided that perhaps I should pursue a more artistic path. I began exploring carving, obtained some rudimentary tools and got going.
Because of that decision, I pretty-much travelled the world – because of the Inuit art and how it’s well-known and in demand around the world. I matured along the way, as I think any artist does, and I developed my own style that has become very distinctive. When people see my art, whether in exhibitions or individually around the world, the adjective they use the most is that it’s “different.” I guess every artist likes to be distinct and different, so I just did what I did and that’s what happened.
Did cross-country skiing to the North Pole help your development as an artist?
That was a significant event in the path of my life. It was coincidentally a time when I began carving as a pastime. Getting invited to ski to the North Pole in ’89 was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I could’ve said no, thinking about the obstacles and challenges, but I figured it was also an excellent opportunity to get more exposure and catapult me into the limelight, especially in the universe of art, because it just so happens that the major sponsor back then, was Amway, and they coincidentally sponsored the Inuit art exhibit Masters of the Arctic.
For me that was great timing, having the opportunity to ski to the North Pole and experience the real Arctic, with all the ice and challenging obstacles like the pressure ridges, open water, and the cold. When Amway found out I was an artist as well, they invited me to represent the Inuit in this exhibit, and that brought me around the world.
Along with your art, you also do some motivational speaking.
Yeah, it all began with that trip to the North Pole. After the expedition we toured Canada, targeted toward Amway distributors – to help them set goals, reach those goals, persevere, be committed and accomplish goals through teamwork. That was their business model.
My speaking snowballed from there to this day, where I speak to different audiences about that experience, what has expanded lately to the residential school issue, and so on. I’m invited here and there to speak about my experience. What I say is: I could have become the victim, but rather I chose the path of a victor.
Do you think your time at the residential school played a role in later taking to art and reconnecting with your history?
They say residential school was a dark period in Canada’s history. I look at it in the way that, it’s only in darkness that you see the stars. It’s just a different perspective. The media and the public know all about the bad, but I want to tell the truth. I want to turn the coin – there’s always a top and a bottom, always a front and back. And so even with residential school, yes, it was bad, but look at the good. That’s what I convey. And audiences are usually really appreciative of the two sides.
Where are you living now, and are you still practising your art?
We moved to Canmore down from Yellowknife in 1997, when the kids were young – Jesse and Marika – because we wanted to give them more opportunity, especially in the world of sports and cross-country skiing. For them, it was a wonderful move, a choice we made because I saw potential. Lo and behold, Jesse made the 2014 and 2018 Olympics for cross-country skiing, Marika also does very well. They call her an influencer these days, right? So they’re very successful.
Part of the attraction of moving to Canmore was the lifestyle, the outdoors, running, biking, hiking, golfing, and so on. So it’s a lifestyle that we lead. It’s a choice we make to be healthy. And I tell audiences wherever I go that if you want to be healthy, you want to hang around healthy. If you want to be successful, you hang around successful people. If you want to be addicted, you spend time with addicted people. So it was a good move for us as a family, and especially for my art as well.
What will you be doing in Yellowknife on September 22?
When I read that my grandfather had written down the Twelve Moons of the Eskimo – as he calls it, which was shared by his grandfather way back in 1909 – I felt I had finally gained the maturity to honour the story, and I completed the sculptures. Now, the marketing has begun.
The presentation on September 22 is a joint venture with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. They’re providing the venue and the space, and bannock and tea. It’s a celebration of traditional knowledge. I don’t want to give too much away, though, because I want to attract the audience to come in.
I do miss the North, it’s in my blood, and it’s always nice to return to a community where people are so welcoming. The North is so dear to me and you will see it in this art project for sure, so spread the word: Angus is on his way back.