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