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Spirit of the North: Inuit Art

It seems almost impossible to picture a time when Inuit art was not one of Canada’s most recognizable art forms. In fact, barely six decades have passed since the artist James Houston helped introduce to the world the stone, ivory and bone carvings that have become icons of the Arctic. Those early examples were at once striking in their modernity and imbued with a centuries-old heritage. The form has since evolved to reflect new techniques, new media and the new realities of northern life, creating a dynamic genre of art that is stylistically varied yet immediately familiar. Today, classic and contemporary pieces by Inuit sculptors, along with innovative printmakers, textile artists and others, are among the most sought-after in the country. Visit these top museums and galleries to admire works by the biggest names in the Inuit art world.

COMPREHENSIVE VIEWS

THE MUSEUM

Amateurs and aficionados alike will revel in the collection of historic and contemporary sculptures, prints and wall hangings at the Museum of Inuit Art. Here, exhibit cases that evoke ice formations and the Arctic environment house one of the largest permanent displays of Inuit art in Canada, with pieces ranging from 1,000-year-old Thule figurines to modern works by the likes of Joe Talirunili, Judas Ullulaq and Mathew Aqigaaq, while an ongoing exhibition of contemporary Cape Dorset drawings illuminates Inuit graphic sensibilities. Maps and information panels educate visitors on such germane topics as Inuit art’s common thematic elements and regional diversity, providing a comprehensive museum experience.

MUST-SEE ART

There are so many excellent artifacts and artworks here that you’ll have a hard time picking a favourite. Among them is Spirits by Karoo Ashevak, whose works are particularly prized for their remarkable figuration. Like many of Ashevak’s pieces, Spirits is carved from whalebone—a favoured material in his peninsular home of Taloyoak, Nunavut—and speaks not only to the artist’s technical skill but also his ability to envision psychological depth in natural forms. The Janus-faced piece is also notable for its inventive ivory and baleen inlays, which show Ashevak to be a master of mixing materials. Tragically, a career that included successful solo exhibitions in Toronto and New York was cut short when Ashevak died in a house fire in 1974, at the age of 34, yet his haunting and whimsical explorations of shamanism and the spirit world continue to inform the work of many Inuit artists to this day.

UPSCALE OPTIONS

THE GALLERY

Yorkville’s Feheley Fine Arts has displayed top-quality works from the Arctic for more than 40 years. Today the gallery is known as a premier dealer of Cape Dorset and Baker Lake prints, plus modern carvings by the likes of Isaci Etidloie and works on paper by such renowned contemporary artists as Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona. Cementing its place on the leading edge, the gallery recently mounted a well-received group exhibition of oil stick drawings by artists including Jutai Toonoo and Arnaqu Ashevak.

MUST-SEE ART

Of the high-profile Inuit artists represented by the gallery, none are more celebrated than Cape Dorset’s Kenojuak Ashevak, a pioneer of Inuit printmaking whose stylized images have appeared on coins and postage stamps, and won their creator international recognition. Though her career spans five decades, the 81-year-old icon continues to innovate: in 2004 Ashevak unveiled the first Inuit-designed stained glass window at Oakville, Ontario’s Appleby College. She continues to explore the medium’s possibilities in recent works like Owl and Fish, which captures the Inuit people’s ancestral heritage through totemic animal imagery while embracing a modern aesthetic with graceful lines and vivid colour. The large-scale piece dazzles in the front window of Feheley Fine Arts.

NATIVE FOCUS

THE GALLERY

Nestled within an idyllic, forested setting in the village of Kleinburg (just 45 minutes northwest of Toronto), the McMichael Canadian Art Collection offers a primer on this country’s fascinating artistic heritage. Though known for its wide-ranging collection of paintings by the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, the gallery also highlights many historical and modern works by First Nations and Inuit artists—sculptures, paintings and such prints as Kenojuak Ashevak’s famed Enchanted Owl are on prominent display. To further your understanding, the McMichael offers The Arctic Image, a special exhibition that examines the landscape and culture of Canada’s north through the perspectives of both Inuit and “southern” artists.

MUST-SEE ART

A diversity of cultural and artistic themes comes together in the remarkable stone carvings of Abraham Anghik Ruben. One such work is Calling the Spirits, a 1.5-metre-high sculpture that stands in the McMichael’s lobby and portrays a swirling, totemic mélange of animal and human figures. Cut from a single piece of B.C. soapstone—an exceptional feat in and of itself, as such large pieces are hard to come by—the carving evokes the traditional myths and shamanistic beliefs of the Inuit, as interpreted by an artist of mixed racial background who spent part of his youth in a residential school and now resides in British Columbia. For a limited time, the gallery is also showing Anghik Ruben’s immense In Their Memory, recently completed for the Holocaust Museum in Israel.

AMPLE ARTISTRY

THE GALLERY

The Art Gallery of Ontario re-opened in November 2008 with a new building by famed architect Frank Gehry and almost 50 per cent more display space than at any point in its century-long history. A significant portion of the gallery’s massive collection of historical and contemporary Canadian art is devoted to works by Inuit peoples. More than 500 Inuit carvings are intriguingly displayed within a “visible storage gallery,” which not only houses many superb examples of northern sculpture, but also provides a behind-the-scenes view of how a major art museum functions. Modern works on paper by prominent Inuit artists also hang in the AGO.

MUST-SEE ART

For the uninitiated, Inuit art can often seem a parade of animal carvings and depictions of traditional ways of life. However, the current generation of northern artists, led by 2006 Sobey Art Award winner Annie Pootoogook, breaks significantly from that stereotype. Drawing My Grandmother’s Glasses is one of a small clutch of Pootoogook’s graphic works displayed at the AGO, and while relatively austere, it nonetheless offers a multifaceted interpretation of every day life in the Arctic. Superficially, the large-scale oil stick drawing can be seen as a homage to the Cape Dorset artist’s heritage—her grandmother was renowned printmaker Pitseolak Ashoona—but details, such as a pencil bearing the Hudson’s Bay Company’s initials, symbolically imply the colonization of Canada’s northern territories and the ongoing struggle of the Inuit peoples to coexist with those of us in the south.

AMPLE ARTISTRY

THE GALLERY

A long-time staple of the Bloor-Yorkville neighbourhood, Maslak McLeod Gallery specializes in Native works that reflect contemporary artistic expression—rather than historical re-creation—through themes including environmental degradation and the loss of traditional culture. In addition to Inuit pieces, interested collectors will find exceptional works by Canadian First Nations artists ranging from the famed Norval Morrisseau to emerging painter Alfred Villeneuve.

MUST-SEE ART

Among the varied selection of Inuit and Aboriginal artists whose works are displayed here is Floyd Kuptana, a sculptor based alternately in Toronto and the Paulatuk community in the Northwest Territories. Influenced by the dynamic style of his equally renowned cousin, David Ruben Piqtoukun, the 44-year-old Kuptana’s highly imaginative carvings—typically chiseled from steatite with inlaid bone or antler, and exemplified by such works as Young Bear and the visceral Spirit Drum Dancer—offer unique, modern interpretations of Inuit folk-history and mythology. At once grotesque and comical, his sculptures have been likened to those of Judas Ullulaq and, in their striking surrealism, to the works of Salvador Dali.

Clarify definitions with our Inuit Art Glossary.

Learn more about where to purchase Inuit art with Score More Sculptures.—Craig Moy

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