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Beyond polar bears

WAG exhibition shows Inuit art is a lot more than shiny soapstone carvings aimed at tourist trade

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Before there was Inuit art, there were "Eskimo carvings."

That is, long before Nunavut sculptor Jamasie Pitseolak began turning the colourful stone of Baffin Island into motorcycles, guitars and high-heeled shoes, his ancestors were using their carving skills to craft weapons and tools.

The nomadic Arctic lifestyle didn't exactly lend itself to esthetic trappings or adornment. Occasionally, however, the Inuit would carve little figurines from the ivory of walrus tusks to give to missionaries, fur traders, military personnel and other visitors to the North as souvenirs.

"Carving was always part of their culture, but it wasn't an art-producing culture because they were rather concerned with survival," says Darlene Coward Wight, who has researched and curated Inuit art for more than 30 years, and travelled to many northern communities.

The carving culture changed in 1948 when a young artist named James Houston travelled to the Canadian Arctic and fell in love with the stone carvings he was given while visiting the village of Inukjuak in northern Quebec. Back home in Montreal, he showed them to members of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, along with an offer to return to the Arctic to acquire more carvings.

In November 1949, the guild -- now the Canadian Guild of Crafts -- held the first Inuit art show and sale. The "primitive and exotic" nature of the works fascinated the public, and an art form was born -- along with an artistic industry that would transform the lives of many Inuit.

As much as some people like to romanticize it as an ancient form of creative expression, "Inuit art has its genesis in economic necessity," Coward Wight writes in Creation & Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art. The new coffee-table book, which contains 150 colour images, serves as the catalogue for a Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibition by the same name that opened Jan. 25 and runs until April 14.

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 Development 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."

Huge collection

-- The WAG's Inuit art collection contains more than 11,000 works, including about 7,100 sculptures. It is the world's largest public collection.

-- Since 1964, the WAG has organized 166 exhibitions featuring works by Inuit artists and hosted 22 shows organized by other museums and galleries.

-- In 1977, a major touring exhibition, The Inuit Print, organized by the Department of Indian and Northern Development and the

National Museum of Man marked the first high-profile use of the term "Inuit" instead of "Eskimo." The latter is now considered offensive.

-- On Oct. 17, 2012, Darlene Coward Wight, curator of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery since 1986, received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Manitoba in recognition of her "tireless dedication to preserve, promote and celebrate art by Canada's Inuit."

Her coffee-table book, Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art, which includes essays by art historians, is available at the WAG shop.

Plans are in the works to build an Inuit Art and Learning Centre to be connected to the WAG and built on the site of its studio building. Ground is expected to break on the 40,000-square-foot, $45-million centre in 2014.

-- Members of the Manitoba Urban Inuit Association are building two igloos, or "iglus," on the WAG rooftop, next to an inukshuk by Nunavut-born artist Manasie Akpaliapik, to coincide with the exhibition Creation & Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art. The icy structures are approximately three metres wide and two metres tall.

Inuit Film Night -- Jan. 26, 7 p.m. (free admission)

Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos is a documentary by Aletha Arnaquq-Baril about her journey to explore the lost tradition of Inuit facial tattoos before getting tattooed herself. The screening will be followed by a Q&A.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 G1

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