Looking Back
The Early Years
The Road to Nunavut
What Price Nunavut?
The Next Generation
Inuit and The Land As One
Living with Change
Our Language, Our Selves
Inuit Art: The New Reality
Hunters and High Finance

The Subsistence Economy
A Public Government
The First MLAs
The World Looks North
What's In A Name?

Map of Nunavut

Inuktitut - Nunavut 99

 

INUIT ART:
THE NEW
REALITY

Inuit artists such as
Simon Pewatoalook
continue to capture the
world's imagination  

Simon Pewatoalook


By Terry Ryan

nuit art is alive and well. Inuit production and presentation of art, in its many manifestations, is both exciting and problematic. This is neither new, nor necessarily alarming — simply an ongoing reality for this significant element of Nunavut's culture and economy.

Our present-day conception of contemporary Inuit art can be traced back exactly 50 years, when success was unexpectedly attained with the Canadian Handicraft Guild's 1949 exhibition in Montreal. This was both rewarding and exciting, coinciding as it did with a slow awakening of national pride in all things Canadian. The name of James Houston will be familiar to many as a major figure in recognizing, encouraging and promoting contemporary Inuit art. Houston's work in Cape Dorset with artists such as Osoetuk Ipeelie and Kenojuak Ashevak allowed the Canadian government to provide that early stimulus that was, in retrospect, so very crucial to the introduction of Inuit art to a worldwide audience.

However, early attempts to persuade the major art institutions of the esthetic importance of Inuit art were maligned somewhat by government officials' determination to create an "industry." There were, after all, few economic alternatives in these remote arctic settlements. A successful cottage industry has been sustained to be sure, producing items ranging from outdoor clothing to miniature tools, sculpture and graphic arts, jewelry, tapestries and pottery. From this diverse effort has developed some wonderfully unique individual examples of the human ability to express the esthetic, and to express it in a voice that speaks to all nations with directness and honesty. The result is the existence today of major collections of Inuit art in many distinguished public and private holdings throughout the world.

The pace of change in the Arctic over the past 50 years has been so marked, so accelerated, and so all-encompassing, that change in artistic expression has been inevitable. For the arts to remain truly valid and maintain support, a new "eye" must be evident. From an era when the arctic lifestyle allowed time for true introspection and pride of craft, Inuit art as we know it today has been transformed by a modern lifestyle and monetary economy full of frustrations and financial pressures. We may note a lessening of the Inuit artist's initial motivation — the desire to present with honesty and unique vision all that was so different from our own perplexing society. The wellspring of Inuit art today derives both from a recognition of the past and a reaction to the present.

Pangnirtung Tapestry Studio

  The Pangnirtung Tapestry Studio at the
Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts: an Inuit art form less than 30 years old drawing on millennia-old threads of Inuit culture

As I write today in the offices of Dorset Fine Arts, amid Toronto's skyscrapers, I think of my work and life with the artists of Cape Dorset in the early '60s, and reflect on how greatly a day in the life of both artist and buyer has changed. The North was then a distant, inaccessible place, and to an Inuk the South was truly a mystery. In many respects that isolation allowed the Inuit artist to live unencumbered, with few outside influences and pressures. The informality of association between artist and buyer was wonderful in retrospect. That relationship has been transformed to meet the dictates of a new era.

But these transformations do not necessarily support dire predictions of Inuit art's premature demise: concerns that inventories of product are too high and that marketing efforts are wanting. More importantly, Inuit art flourishes. Each generation has had its world-renowned champions, and the current generation is no exception. The contemporary art "industry" of Canada's Arctic will remain vital as long as there are Inuit artists proud of their heritage and determined to express honestly their ever-changing culture. Their voices, though different from their elders, are no less worthy of our admiration and respect.

Inuit art, so admired over the past half-century, will undoubtedly continue to change. There is an onus on Nunavut's elected leaders, beginning in 1999 and for the next half-century, to support the artistic expression of Inuit culture and the new Nunavut. There is an onus, too, on the Inuit artist to be not merely a repetitive chronicler of times past, but a witness to and active participant in this exciting new era.


Toronto artist Terry Ryan first sailed to the Arctic in 1956, and settled in Cape Dorset in 1960. He is general manager of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative and Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto.

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