The history, heritage and culture of the Inuit revealed through art
at an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery
When I think of Inuit art the first image which comes to mind is a dark grey soapstone carving of a person in a parka, but I know Inuit art is more than that. Stones other than soapstone are used for carving. The art includes paintings, beadwork, prints, soft sculptures and dolls, tapestries and more. Although I most often associate Inuit art with stylistic and simple abstract lines, styles vary widely. And yet it remains recognizable as Inuit art in all its forms and styles. It typically depicts life in the north and the traditional lifestyle, unified by common themes of deep connection with family, natural surroundings and the spiritual world. Recently, I gained an appreciation for how the narrative content of Inuit art reveals a people’s history and heritage to the world.
It was the evening of Nuit Blanche in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Nuit Blanche Winnipeg is an annual dusk-to-dawn free event celebrating contemporary art. The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) was one of the participants in the event, opening its galleries and hosting several parties. I was not there for any of the parties. I wanted to see the Inuit art at the Our Land: Contemporary Art from the Arctic exhibit.
As my friend and I made our way to the elevator, a man inside held the doors open for us. That man turned out to be well versed with Inuit art. He was Fred Ford, chair of the WAG Works of Art Committee and President/Board Chair of the Manitoba Inuit Association. He gave us and a couple of other people a mini guided tour of the exhibit.
Fred told us there is no word for art in the Inuit language. The Inuit have lived in the eastern Canadian Arctic since ancient times and have a long creative history, yet Inuit art is a contemporary art form. The Inuit used their carving, stitching and other creative skills to decorate useful objects. When visitors from the south became interested in the Arctic depictions of Inuit life, starting in the late 1700s, the Inuit began decorating pieces specifically for trade. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the modern era of Inuit art began.
In 1948, James Houston travelled from southern Canada to the Arctic and brought back soapstone carvings. Interest grew after an exhibition in Montreal. The previous two centuries of European contact had brought profound changes to the Inuit way of life. The move away from a nomadic hunting lifestyle into settlements had created economic challenges. Encouraged by the Canadian government, the Inuit turned to art to deal with these challenges.
Fred looked at carvings from across the room and identified where they were from, and sometimes the specific artist, by the stone used and the particular style. Carvings were made from different types of stone, bone and antlers. Fred told us the story depicted in the The Men Hunting Caribou in Kayaks print by Luke Anguhadluq from Baker Lake. Caribou could be difficult to catch on land. In summer and early fall caribou went into the rivers as part of their migration path. Inuit hunters came up beside them in kayaks and speared them. There were tapestries on the gallery walls and clothing on display, made of caribou skin and other fabrics. Fred looked at one parka and identified what area it was from. He said it had belonged to a single woman. He could tell that from the style of the clothing. He also told us it was common to sew on decorative patches to the fronts of parkas to identify your community so people approaching in the distance could identify you. Thanks to Fred, the gallery became more than an exhibition of art. It was the story of a people.
A room at the back of the exhibit was dedicated to Inuit printmaking. In addition to print artwork itself, there was information about the process and tools on display. Unlike other types of Inuit art, printmaking does not have historical roots. James Houston introduced the technique to the Inuit. The Inuit took the technique and made it uniquely their own, often carving images into stone and transferring that image onto paper. Throughout the entire exhibit, I was struck by how the Inuit had adapted techniques to use available material and used new methods to tell ancient stories.
The art in the exhibit came from Nunavut, a territory formed in 1999 when Canada redrew its map and divided the Northwest Territories into two entities. It was the outcome of the largest aboriginal land claim in Canada. Inuit people make up 83% of the population of Nunavut.
After Nunavut was formed, collections of art were assessed. Ownership of pieces from the eastern Arctic was transferred to Nunavut. Many pieces remained in storage in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. In February 2016, the Nunavut government reached an agreement with the Winnipeg Art Gallery to loan them 7,500 pieces. The WAG already had its own collection of Inuit art, having starting to collect it in the 1950s. Today, the WAG holds in trust the world’s largest collection of Inuit art and has plans for the construction of a new Inuit art centre.
I visited the Our Land exhibit again on my own, viewing the exhibits with a little more insight. Our Land: Contemporary Art from the Arctic is no longer running at the WAG, but there are other pieces of Inuit art on display in the WAG’s permanent exhibits. Their gift shop carries pieces of Inuit art and has a beautiful showcase of sculptures.
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