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First Nations Art

Canada has a rich First Nations legacy most immediately accessible through art. Inspired by myths, spiritual beliefs and everyday life, the Inuit people’s stone and bone carvings and brilliant command of textile art distinguishes them as a northern people at once extraordinarily challenged and exceptionally gifted. Created in a milder climate, the art of the Northwest coast of British Columbia tells a different story of ritual performance, gift-giving, and clan histories. This month drop by one of the downtown commercial galleries specializing in First Nations art. You’re guaranteed to come away stimulated and enlightened, perhaps even with an art or craftwork in hand.

Harris Gallery Nazie and David Harris of Harris Gallery (page 51) first encountered Inuit art while they were teaching on Baffin Island. Deeply touched by the warm welcome they received while in the Arctic, the pair are now dedicated to selling and promoting artists from 25 northern communities. Located in the very elegant environs of Queen’s Quay Terminal, the Harris Gallery showcases original works appealing to collectors, while acting as representatives of the Inuit Co-operative System of distribution. (This means that they honour the prices established by non-profit distribution centres based in the North.) To evoke the sights and sounds of Arctic life, the gallery presents an ongoing slide show of images of the landscape and its resilient inhabitants. Similarly, every effort is made to reflect regional stylistic differences. For example, noted for their emotionally charged shamanic or mythological images, Northern Baffin Island artists favour porous ancient whalebone which, in order to carved must be fossilized-a process that takes about 100 years-as well as serpentine, steatite and other stones quarried in the region. Less well-known are the lovely baskets woven from native grasses in Sanikiluaq while Kelly Qimirpik’s Man Carrying Rock is a major classic stone carving: the figure of a man struggling beneath the weight of a massive rock accurately depicts quarry life with a Sisyphian overtone.

Bay of Spirits If totem poles exert an irresistible appeal, head for the Bay of Spirits (page 51). Unique in Toronto, its focus is on art by native peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast including Haida, Kwakiutl, Coast Salish and Tsimshian. Carved wall panels, sculpture, limited edition prints, jewellery and books round out offerings from the Northwest but there’s also fine art and craft from the Inuit, Cree, Mi’kmaq, Ojibway and Six Nations groups. From the end of February and throughout March, featured artists include Ed and Darienne McAuley of Singing Dog Studios, who produce striking gourd vessels. Ed’s MZtis heritage and Darienne’s background as a weaver come together in their appealing vessels embellished with neo-primitive motifs inspired by ancient petroglyph paintings found near their farm in Cavan, Ontario. Particularly distinctive is Darienne’s treatment of the openings, which are finished with coils of woven grass. On the walls of the Bay of Spirits are acrylics by Jerry Whitehead. A Cree from Saskatchewan, now living in Vancouver, Whitehead paints mothers and children in a style he describes as “controlled graffiti.” The youngest of five brothers in a family that also includes five sisters, Whitehead sees his own mother as a larger than life figure. In further homage to his parents, he frequently incorporates the words “Mom” and “Dad” in his compositions, hiding the angular letters in amongst his dark contour lines. As for those totem poles, look for a powerful 10-foot high carved cedar pole and several seven-foot high ones by Stogan as well as small carved steatite poles by various artists.

Eskimo Art Gallery The striking interior of the Eskimo Art Gallery, (page 51) deftly echoes the Arctic landscape, with a tundra patterned Berber carpet, frosted glass shelves, and gleaming white, iceberg-shaped pedestals for the sculptures. Carrying a wide range of prints and sculptures from across the Arctic, the gallery, in business since 1981, sells art at all price points, with a broad selection of works under $1,000 available directly or through the Internet. A virtual visit to the Eskimo Art Gallery via its extensive online boutique nets several appealing works including a serpentine-stone carved Dancing Bear of edgy angularity by Joe Parr of Cape Dorset; also there are a number of wonderful woodcut and stencil prints by Victoria Mamnguqsualuk (daughter of Jessie Oonark) of Baker Lake, including a wonderful version of one of the many myths based on the heroic exploits of Kiviuq in Fish Help Kiviuk, where the latter form a path with their backs so that Kiviuq can walk upon the water.

Arctic Nunavut Nunavut, a vast new Canadian territory, spans the eastern Arctic and the Arctic islands with a far-flung population of 27,000 individuals, 85 per cent of whom are Inuit. Of these, an extraordinarily high number are artists-in some cases, third generation artists and artisans-who rely heavily on the revenue generated by their handiwork. That’s where co-operatives like the Nunavut Development Corporation come in, as they strive to create and maintain jobs in the region. Most of the craftworks on sale at Arctic Nunavut (page 49) are distributed by the NDC, a non-profit alliance of nine companies in seven communities. Among the retail outlet’s many fine handcrafted items are collector “packing dolls” created in Taloyoak, high above the Arctic Circle in the Boothia Peninsula, with a population of less than 750. Available in wool duffle ($290) or fur ($300), these delightful stuffed toys represent a mother animal-be it a polar bear, arctic hare or fox-“packing” her baby, as any Inuit mother might, in the voluminous hood of her traditional parka or amaut. There are also many items for adults, including fur garments and accessories. And now that fur is back in favour on the fashion runways, Arctic Nunavut responds to the trend with fabulous dyed sealskin backpacks ($475) from Arviat, skillfully decorated with a white fur bear stitched into the top flap. For sheer charm, nothing can top the wool duffle tea cosies ($65) from Baker Lake and Taloyoak, shaped like a parka-clad figure topped with a deerskin face ringed with real fur. The best find of all, however, are the cunning little “antler people” ($14.95) from Arviat. A simple toy that could have been made a millenium ago, the bone persons consist of a cylindrical cross-section of antler with moveable bone arms and legs and minimally incised features. They look for all the world like little neolithic Pac-Men.—Betty Ann writes for the New York Times and is a guest writer.

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