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Bone Up On Inuit Art

Beauty remains even in the most unyielding environment. In the Canadian Arctic, harsh winds sweep across the tundra, ice floes drift in the ocean current and, in the extreme north, the sun struggles to shine for six months of the year. It is a seemingly barren domain, yet the Inuit people have survived there for many centuries, with a thriving culture and distinctive, remarkable art.

From colourful prints and textiles to iconic sculptures fashioned from rock and bone, Inuit art has evolved with Inuit society. Today, it is arguably the most recognizable Canadian art form: the inukshuk is the official logo of the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics; stone carvings are routinely offered as gifts to visiting diplomats; and Inuit artists are increasingly the subjects of major exhibitions and the recipients of prestigious awards.

Despite such popularity, it has been relatively difficult to view and learn the history of Inuit art in public institutions—a situation remedied by Toronto’s Museum of Inuit Art.

A NEW SPACE
With more than 6,000 square feet of exhibition space in the elegant Queen’s Quay Terminal, the museum represents the largest permanent display of Inuit art in Canada. “It’s the first museum dedicated exclusively to Inuit art,” says adjunct curator Norman Zepp, “so the viewer gets a concentrated and focused experience.” The museum is also another landmark of the city’s cultural renaissance, and is a welcome addition to a bustling lakeshore area that is home to Harbourfront Centre, which hosts a variety of outdoor festivals, live concerts and art shows at venues such as The Power Plant.

Four years in the making prior to its 2007 opening, the museum exists due to the efforts of David Harris—a former teacher in Nunavut and founder of a respected commercial gallery for Inuit art—and a group of dedicated partners. They include Zepp, who was the curator of Inuit art at the Art Gallery of Ontario from 1988 to 1994, Cynthia Waye—the museum’s associate curator—and a number of enthusiastic private art collectors.

Housed in large display cases that evoke ice formations and the Arctic environment, the museum’s more than 300 original pieces of art are composed of its in-house collection and a number of works on loan from private donors. The primary focus is sculpture—carved from stone, antler, ivory and bone—but prints, drawings and tapestries are also on display. Of these, a majority are from the Contemporary (around 1945 to 1990) and Post-Contemporary (1990s to today) periods, and represent the subjects, forms, media and, of course, artists associated with modern Inuit art. Works from earlier eras provide historical context, while maps, information panels and other interpretive materials ensure a comprehensive museum experience.

According to Zepp, visitors to the museum will not only see “some of the best art produced in the Canadian Arctic,” but will also gain “an understanding of the scope and breadth of Inuit art,” through accessible exhibits outlining common thematic elements and regional stylistic diversity. Temporary displays, like the current exhibit of wall hangings made by female artists in Baker Lake, are also illuminating.

AGE-OLD CULTURE
Though humans have lived in the Arctic for more than 4,000 years, the Inuit trace their ancestry back to the period around AD 1000, when the Thule people migrated across the Canadian territories from northern Alaska. The museum houses a selection of pieces from this ancestral epoch, including delicately carved figures and other objects of such historical importance that, although barely the size of a thimble, are practically priceless.

The museum also displays a selection of items from what is commonly referred to as Inuit art’s Historic Period—an era beginning in the 16th century, when European whalers, missionaries and explorers came into contact with the Inuit. Ivory carvings of animals were commonly bartered goods, as were replicas of tools and other western-style objects.

ARTISTIC DIFFERENCES
Because a relatively small population was—and remains—dispersed across the vast swath of Arctic tundra, Inuit art took on regional distinctions over time, as hundreds of scattered family groups coalesced into the larger communities that exist today. Some of the museum’s most dramatic works come from Cape Dorset, a community on Baffin Island where artists such as Osuitok Ipeelee, Pauta Saila and Latcholassie Akesuk incorporate an elegant, stylized naturalism into their representations of animals and mythological creatures.

The works at the museum reflect these regional differences, which are influenced by such factors as the availability of materials and the lifestyle particular to each community. Harris says that by displaying a range of regional styles, the museum helps visitors appreciate the distinctions between, for example, the large, semi-abstract Keewatin stone carvings commonly made in Baker Lake, and the realistic family-scene sculptures by Inukjuak-area artists in northern Quebec.

A MODERN INDUSTRY
The jewels of the Museum of Inuit Art are a selection of more recent sculptures created by acknowledged masters of the form, such as Joe Talirunili and Judas Ullulaq. Some of these works are individually showcased, and can be glimpsed through floor-to-ceiling windows by interested passers-by. They reflect the high quality not only of the museum’s collection, but also of the work produced by Inuit artists since their introduction to mainstream audiences in the 1940s.

Since that time, the creation of sculptures, prints, tapestries and other art has been a vital social and economic force in Arctic communities. Today, Inuit artists typically produce and sell their work through the co-operative system—locally based organizations that, among other things, arrange distribution and help to ensure artists are given fair value for their work.

The adjoining Museum of Inuit Art Gallery receives its works through the co-operatives and honours their suggested sale prices. In this sense, the commercial gallery becomes something of an extension of the museum, where visitors can see the practical side of the Inuit art economy at work.

INSPIRATION AND INSIGHT
Once a teacher in the Cape Dorset community, fittingly, Harris says it is the museum’s educational potential that excites him the most. Regardless of age or knowledge, visitors will be awed by an extensive collection of art, and will gain insight into the continuing evolution of one of Canada’s many vibrant indigenous cultures.

“There’s a perception that the Inuit are a people of the past, that they aren’t a living and dynamic culture,” Harris says. “I hope that by understanding the art, people will leave the museum with an awareness of the current realities of life in the Arctic—an awareness of the changing culture and how the Inuit are rapidly becoming citizens of the world.”

The Museum of Inuit Art is open daily from 10 a.m to 6 p.m. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students; children under 5 are free.

Please also see the related articles:
More Aboriginal Art Galleries
Where to Buy Inuit Art

—Craig Moy

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