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Inuit art was “prompted,” she says, by the Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany’s trad­ing posts and Inuit-owned arts and crafts co-op­er­a­tives set up by the fed­eral government as a way to in­te­grate Inuit into Canada’s cash econ­omy af­ter the Sec­ond World War forced them to give up their no­madic life­style and set­tle in small com­mu­ni­ties. When the white fox pop­u­la­tion, the back­bone of the Inuit econ­omy, be­came scarce, Inuit art emerged as a com­mod­ity and a cul­tural iden­ti­fier.

“There was a whole sys­temic ex­port­ing in­dus­try that devel­oped in the ’50s,” says Coward Wight, the WAG’s cu­ra­tor of Inuit art since 1986.

By 1954, all carv­ings were be­ing pur­chased by Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany trad­ing posts; half were shipped to the Cana­dian Hand­i­crafts Guild in Mon­treal and the other half to Hud­son’s Bay’s Win­nipeg head­quar­ters.

(It wasn’t un­til 1977, when the De­part­ment of In­dian and North­ern De- vel­op­ment and the Na­tional Mu­seum of Man or­ga­nized a ma­jor tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tled The Inuit Print that the term “Inuit” re­placed “Eskimo,” which is now con­sid­ered of­fen­sive out­side of Alaska.)

Canada’s first Inuit art ex­hi­bi­tion in 1949 was an un­sung event that didn’t gar­ner a sin­gle news­pa­per re­view, Coward Wight notes her in her book. But by the end of 1956, sculp­tures from the north­ern Que­bec com­mu­ni­ties of Inukjuak, Pu­vir­ni­tuq and Sal­luit and Cape Dorset, in present-day Nu­navut, were show­cased in nearly 40 ma­jor gal­leries and mu­se­ums across North Amer­ica and Europe.

The Win­nipeg Art Gallery dis­played Inuit sculp­ture for the first time in De­cem­ber 1953 and started its col­lec­tion in 1957. To­day, the WAG is home to the world’s largest pub­lic col­lec­tion of Inuit art — more than 11,000 works, in­clud­ing about 7,100 sculp­tures.

Inuit art makes up nearly half of the WAG’s en­tire col­lec­tion.

The Cre­ation & Trans­for­ma­tion: Defin­ing Mo­ments in Inuit ex­hi­bi­tion will fea­ture 115 pieces — sculp­tures, prints, draw­ings, tex­tiles, ce­ram­ics and clay — that chart the ge­n­e­sis and evo­lu­tion of con­tem­po­rary Inuit art from its in­cep­tion to the present day.

“We’re now into the third gen­er­a­tion of artists who never lived off the land. Their life­style is very much com­mu­nity-based,” says Coward Wight.

Fea­tured artist Ja­masie Pit­se­o­lak, for in­stance, the son of carvers Oopik Pit­se­o­lak and Mark Pit­se­o­lak, be­longs to the first gen­er­a­tion of Inuit who grew up in per­ma­nent, year-round set­tle­ments. Trained as a plumber in Ed­mon­ton, he started carv­ing se­ri­ously in the mid-1990s and “spe­cial­izes in the minu­tiae of con­tem­po­rary set­tle­ment life, in­clud­ing gui­tars, sewing machines, au­to­mo­biles, shoes, ten­nis rack­ets, skate­boards and mo­tor­cy­cles,” ac­cord­ing to his bio. “In­spi­ra­tion comes from tele­vi­sion, movies, mag­a­zines, cur­rent events and from child­hood mem­o­ries.”

Tra­di­tional carvers from the early 1950s, such Johnny Inukpuk, whose mostly fe­male sub­jects are no­table for their un­usu­ally large heads and hands, rep­re­sent other defin­ing mo­ments in the show’s six-decade time­line.

Of course, as vis­i­tors to the Cre­ation and Trans­for­ma­tion ex­hi­bi­tion will see, Inuit art en­com­passes so much more than the shiny green soap­stone sculp­tures of po­lar bears and hunters wield­ing ivory har­poons that are pop­u­lar in the tourist mar­ket.

The 1970s were a pe­riod of ex­pan­sion and di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion, notes Coward Wight, par­tic­u­larly for print­mak­ing and tex­tile arts. Fab­ric wall hang­ings emerged as a sig­nif­i­cant new art form. Mean­while, a young Taloyoak artist named Ka­roo Ashe­vak took tra­di­tional whale-bone sculp­ture in a new ex­pres­sion­is­tic di­rec­tion.

It wasn’t un­til the 1990s that gallery own­ers in ma­jor ur­ban cen­tres started to de­velop di­rect work­ing re­la­tion­ships with Inuit artists in­stead of just ob­tain­ing art­works through Arc­tic co-op­er­a­tives. Worlds opened up, lit­er­ally and ar­tis­ti­cally, as travel be­came eas­ier and younger artists — many of them English-speak­ing or bilin­gual — be­gan to make use of im­proved telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and In­ter­net ca­pa­bil­i­ties. That decade, of course, ended with the cre­ation of the Ter­ri­tory of Nu­navut, the first ma­jor change to Canada’s po­lit­i­cal map since the in­cor­po­ra­tion of New­found­land as a province in 1949.

To­day, as Coward Wight writes in her book, “the un­prece­dented in­clu­sion of Inuit art in in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions, bi­en­nales and art fairs has bro­ken down bar­ri­ers be­tween pre­vi­ously ex­clu­sive art worlds.”

For the unini­ti­ated, she says, the WAG ex­hi­bi­tion, tak­ing place dur­ing the gallery’s cen­ten­nial year, will be a won­der­ful in­tro­duc­tion to the com­plex­ity of cre­ative ex­pres­sion in the Arc­tic.

“Peo­ple see Inuit art at the air­port and in gift shops and they come away with the idea that it all looks the same,” says Coward Wight. “But there’s a huge va­ri­ety of artis­tic ex­pres­sion and it dif­fers from com­mu­nity to com­mu­nity and from artist to artist.”

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