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.”