I can smell fish drying on a rack and the faint scent of burning heather wafting around a summer camp surrounded by an expanse of nuna (tundra) stretching in every direction as far as the eye can see. Josie Pitseolak’s collection of miniaturized everyday items from an Inuit summer camp has the power to evoke these senses even if, unlike myself, the smell of the ocean is no longer in your nose from harvesting last night’s fish nets.
Miniatures (c. 2004–6) evokes a sense of wonder too. How did he manage to create these remarkably accurate miniatures? A childish sense of pleasure, tinted with adult nostalgia, wells up inside me. I just want to aqaq them. More importantly, however, this collection bridges the gaps between traditional Inuit cultural output and the contemporary materials of Inuit ar t today, while shifting the lens through which his art is viewed.
Pitseolak is an artist who clearly absorbs the subtleties of his surroundings. As a result, his work is thoughtful and unique.¹ Combining tradition, history and the artist’s lived experience, these miniatures are no exception. The tools are traditional implements we have used in our summer camps for centuries. The food items could be found in Inuit grub-boxes of the midtwentieth century and harken back to a time when a supply ship would come once a year to the North. Brands like Klik and
Pilot Biscuits became rationed staples for Inuit, as we were largely forced to abandon our nomadic lifestyles in favour of the permanent settlements the federal government desired. And when these items became more abundant with the expansion of sea and air deliveries, Inuit continued to buy them without the need to ration. Today, many
Inuit have a nostalgic association with these brands and their graphic packaging.
By reducing the scale of these objects, Pitseolak encourages me to reconsider the space they occupy both physically and historically. They evoke a sadness in me—a reminder that, for many Inuit, our relationship with the land has been interrupted. The reality is our use of traditional tools has steadily declined while our reliance on modern conveniences and diets has increased. Many are unabe to afford the expense of camping in the summer as it often requires a boat, with a full tank of gas, as well as hunting or fishing equipment and more. The miniaturized tools alongside the diminutive packaging from this collection symbolize the move away from a reliance on nuna for sustenance and a diet of inuksiutiit (traditional foods)— naturally balanced by seasonal availability— to rationing supplies in our grub-box to shopping for food at local stores.
Despite the meloncholic undertone I find in this piece, I sense, as an Inuk artist, the distinctly Inuit appreciation for art at the forefront of Pitseolak’s work. There is a sense of curiosity, acceptance, joy and encouragement among Inuit artists that stems from witnessing other artists express themselves. Like celebrated graphic artist Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), Pitseolak’s work relays a sense of courage and bravery, of empowered self-expression on his own terms: as an individual, an Inuk and as an artist.
By creating a work that is engaging to observers and layered with meaning, Josie’s miniatures exemplify a shift in contemporary Inuit art that allows viewers to see through a lens that frames both the individual approach of the ar tist as well as the collective Inuit experience. And, one that paves the way for Inuit artists today to find self-expression as they see fit.
Janet Pitsiulaaq Brewster is a multidisciplinary artist and Executive Director of the Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association.
By reducing the scale of these objects, Pitseolak encourages me to reconsider the space they occupy both physically and historically.
Josie Pitseolak (b. 1976 Mit timatalik) — Miniaturesc. 2004–6Mixed media Dimensions variable PHOTOS INUIT ART FOUNDATION