An Inuit Art Primer

Inuit art is a contemporary and not a traditional art form that was created almost purely for commercial purposes. If I had to state the most memorable and surprising thing I’ve learned about Inuit art that’s it!  The Winnipeg Art Gallery  has the largest collection of Inuit Art in the world.  When I started giving tours there I knew very little about Inuit art so I decided I needed to educate myself. I did lots of reading and research and here are ten interesting things I learned. 

1. The birth of Inuit Art was almost an accident.

In 1948 artist James Houston visited Arctic Quebec. He bought some small Inuit stone and ivory carvings home. The Canadian Handicrafts Guild sent him back up north in 1949 to buy hundreds more for their annual sale. 90% sold in three days. Between 1951 and 1952 Houston toured the Arctic telling the Inuit what they should make and what materials to use. Soon sales of Inuit art had grown to such a large volume the Hudsons’ Bay Company took over managing the business. And thus the Inuit art industry was born. 

2. Some people think Inuit art is the result of a giant government-sponsored welfare project.

The Canadian government promoted Inuit art and adopted it as a symbol of the north. They wanted it to thrive because they saw it as an answer to the problem of unemployment in Canada’s north. Up to 25% of people in some communities are involved in creating art. 

3. There really wasn’t very much Inuit art being made before the early 1950’s.

Not many artistic artifacts dating before 1700  have been found. Some animal and human figures, masks, ritual objects used by shamans, pendants, and lots of small models of flying or floating polar bears have been preserved. In the late 1700’s more objects were made at the request of traders, missionaries, and whalers who began to visit Inuit communities. They wanted models of hunting scenes, cribbage boards, and Christian images. Some explorers asked the Inuit to make maps with paper and ink and to draw wildlife scenes for them. They began to add more details to their carvings and make them bigger to please their customers.

4. Inuit sculptures are not only made from one kind of stone.

A whole variety of different kinds of stones are used as well as lots of other materials like walrus ivory, antlers, driftwood, and whalebone. Many different tools are used to create sculptures including axes, hatchets, chisels, mallets, rotary grinders, files, rasps, Emory, clothes, and sandpaper. 

5. There are predominant themes in Inuit art.

Animals play a vital role in Inuit life and art.  Older Inuit spent years watching, stalking, and killing animals, so they know them well.  Everyday life is another important theme–people preparing food, hunting, playing games, and sewing. The family is a recurring theme particularly mothers and their children.  Younger artists often carve figures that have to do with ancient shamanism and the supernatural. The older artist will not carve these kinds of figures because they believe them to be evil. For nearly two hundred years the Inuit have been predominantly Christian, converted by zealous missionaries. Some have explored Christian themes in their art. Inuit legends and myths are also frequent themes. 

6. Art from six key areas of the north can be very different

This is because each region has different materials available to use to create art pieces. Also, each region has had different outside influences. The personal tastes of the advisors and entrepreneurs who work with Inuit artists and buy their work have a big influence on the kind of art they do. Influential artists in certain communities have developed their own personal styles and that has influenced other artists in their community. 

The Owl stonecut on paper by Lukta Qiatsuk- 1959

7. Although 80% of Inuit art is sculpture there are other important art forms as well. 

Drawings and paintings done with colored pencils, acrylic paint and water-color recall the glory days of the hunt and traditional camp life. Textile arts are mostly the domain of Inuit women who create tapestries that are often very colorful and large. Printmaking is also a staple of Inuit art.  I have explained how that came to the north in my post The Globalization of Art From Japan to Cape Dorset. 

8. It is hard to categorize Inuit art.

Much of it was made for commercial purposes to be sold as souvenirs. Various labels have been suggested for Inuit art. Is it fine art, folk art, tourist art, ethnic art or Canadian art? Fine art galleries like the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the Canadian Museum of Civilization began to collect Inuit art already in the 1960’s, but other national art establishments like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery only began to embrace it in the 1980’s. All four of these galleries now have separate Inuit art curators. 

9. Inuit art does preserve culture, language, stories and the Inuit identity. 

While Inuit art provides a record of traditional Inuit life and has become a vehicle for cultural preservation this was not the purpose for which much of it was created. It was art that was made for export and not for teaching Inuit children about their heritage. 

10. Many modern Inuit artists want their work to show the reality of life for the Inuit today. 

Will they choose the path of innovation or tradition? Younger artists see their work more as a means of self-expression than a way to preserve Inuit traditions.  They tend to be more experimental. In the past Inuit art was never abstract. This is changing. 

I am looking forward to learning much more about Inuit art as  I continue to read and research and explore the large collection of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. 

Much of the information in this post comes from the book Inuit Art: An Introduction by Ingo Hessel

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Filed under Art, Canada, Culture, History, Winnipeg

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