May the gods forgive me, but in my first encounter with Inuit art, I remember the encounter more than the art.
That’s because I was a high-school drama-club geek and our school, for the first time in its history, had won the provincial finals of the Sears Drama Festival. I got one of four outstanding performance awards for playing the title role in Larry Fineberg’s version of Medea. The provincial Lieutenant Governor of the day, The Honourable Pauline McGibbon, made the presentations, including to a dazed skinny kid from Elmira who had performed that night, steering me to one of four framed Inuit prints displayed on the stage of Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre.
It was only later, once home after the big night, that I looked at the print: tents with fish suspended on lines between them, a boat, two figures in kayaks a dozen others in parkas, a large boat and, in foreground, what I have always assumed are seals (although I might be wrong). The colours were mostly blues and greys, with some gold: the tones of snow, rock, and sun. It was a scene from life as lived, perhaps from a time past, by Canada’s indigenous people in the continent’s northernmost reaches.
From that inauspicious start, I developed a curiosity about this art, and how it came to be.
I learned that such Inuit printmaking is actually a 20th-century phenomenon. As art historian Sandra Buhai Barz puts it, “Inuit printmaking is more anomalous than carving in that it does not have substantial historical precedents, although there are affinities with incised carvings on bone or antler, women’s facial tattoo marks, or inlay skin work on clothing, mitts and footwear. Carving materials such as stone, bone, antler, wood and ivory were available locally, but paper and drawing tools were unknown until introduced by early explorers and missionaries.”
To this day, Inuit prints are produced largely from five centres: Cape Dorset, Nunavut, the largest; and Povungnituk, Holman (Ulukhaktok), Baker Lake and Pangnirtung. A recent Heritage Minute video, produced by Historica Canada, tells the story artist Kenojuak Ashevak, one of the early founders of the Cape Dorset printmaking co-op.
Before Inuit artists created two-dimensional prints of their visions, they carved three-dimensional objects from organic materials at hand, such as whalebone or ivory. These carvings decorated objects such as combs or tools, or were figurines of people or animals used as toys. Once Europeans encountered the indigenous people of the north, there evolved what’s dubbed “trade art” — objects made specifically for sale or trade. Inuit carvers started using stone and creating sculptures of Christian religious symbols or other items appealing to Europeans.
By the middle of the 20th century, a movement arose to support Inuit sculptors to return to their traditional subjects; a young Toronto artist, James Houston, is credited with being the promotional force getting Inuit art into southern markets and setting up artists’ co-operatives. Both the federal government and the Hudson’s Bay Company provided financial support, along with the Canadian Handicraft Guild.
Such carved figures, particularly of animals or birds, have become enormously popular, whether among private collectors or as public art installations. There are dozens of variations of the irrepressibly happy “Dancing Bear” available currently through Gallery Indigena, which began four decades ago in Stratford, Ontario and now has stores as well in Vancouver and Toronto. Many Inuit artists are also exploring more abstract forms of art, not based on animals, birds, boats or other icons of northern life.
In one of those art-is-imitating-life circles, Indigena’s catalogue of Inuit carving also shows several miniature Inukshuks.
Inukshuk are a genie-has-escaped-the-bottle phenomenon in Canada. You see them alongside highways and on beaches. You see them in flowerbeds. Originally, they had a job to do. To quote Historica Canada: “During their summer hunts, Inuit families sometimes built stone piles, often in the shape of humans with outstretched arms. The Inuit call these sculptures ‘inukshuks.’ They marked good fishing sites, provided shelter from the wind, and sometimes offered a place for hunters to ambush caribou. On the wild Arctic landscape, they are often the only sign that humans have passed through, a symbol of the traditional Inuit way of life.”
Peter Irniq, a former Nunavut commissioner, disagrees with this assessment: traditional Inukshuk, he says, do not have human shape with legs and head, but are solid below and above the horizontal marker stone, a shape reflected in the official flag of Nunavut, Canada’s largest and most-northern of three territories that, along with the 10 provinces, comprise the 13 political divisions of this country.
With or without human-like legs, the Inukshuk shape has become such a piece of Canadiana that it inspired the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics logo. There is lively debate as to whether this Inukshuk proliferation is disrespectful to Inuit tradition — the Olympic logo was sharply criticized by some indigenous leaders, including Irniq — or if this is an instance where people are seeing what they want to see: rocks stacked with wide-open welcoming arms that can embrace us all.
Main photo of Kelley Teahen and The Honourable Pauline McGibbon: Courtesy the Sears Drama Festival.