July 7, 2020

16° C, Clear

Full Forecast


Advertise With Us

Miniature art, big stories

Inuit artists recreate landscapes and oral histories in pocket-sized carvings

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>For her first show in her new role as the WAG’s assistant curator of Inuit art, Jocelyn Piirainen is showcasing a collection of miniture Inuit carvings.</p>


For her first show in her new role as the WAG’s assistant curator of Inuit art, Jocelyn Piirainen is showcasing a collection of miniture Inuit carvings.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/8/2019 (330 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When you think of the north, you tend to think big. Vast panoramas of snow and ocean, hulking glaciers, massive polar bears, huge whales.

So it’s incredible, then, when you encounter the work of Inuit artists who were able to capture the enormity of those scenes in hyper-detailed, pocket-sized carvings from ivory, stone, antler, bone and sinew. An entire way of life, captured in an artwork only a few centimetres high.

More than 100 such miniature carvings compose the aptly titled Small Worlds exhibition, on now at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Mark Tungilik’s piece On the Land is made of stone and ivory.</p>


Mark Tungilik’s piece On the Land is made of stone and ivory.

"Many of these pieces did have that idea in mind too, that they were representing these small worlds," says Jocelyn Piirainen, the WAG’s assistant curator of Inuit art. This is the 31-year-old’s first exhibition in her new role, which is also the first such position in Canada to be held by an Inuk.

Piirainen was keen to work with the miniatures — many of which are drawn from the Government of Nunavut Fine Arts Collection on long-term loan to the WAG — as a counterpoint to some of the larger carvings on display in other galleries.

"They were really wonderful to see," she says. "The amount of detail that go into them, the expression. You can see the joy and happiness in them."

Artists from 19 different communities across Nunavut are represented in this show, including works from a few unidentified artists. Most of the pieces, which depict scenes and animals from day-to-day life, were created between 1950 and 1970. There’s a striking amount of movement in these tiny works; whales dive and birds soar while little figures hunt and fish.

In Ulilak’s 1959 ivory and stone work, Man and Qayaq with Two Swimming Caribou, the caribou are carved in such a way that whatever surface they are placed on becomes a placid body of water.

Sometimes, the shape and form of a stone or piece of bone would dictate the piece, Piirainen says. A jawbone might become a rugged shoreline; the smooth contours of the stone might suggest the backside of a walrus or whale. Ivory is, by far and away, the most popular medium.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Gino Akka’s piece, Swimming Birds, is made from ivory and bone.</p>


Gino Akka’s piece, Swimming Birds, is made from ivory and bone.

The carvings also tell stories. Enook Manomie’s 1976 work, created from ivory and sinew, is inspired by the Inuit legend, How The Narwhal Got Its Tusk.

There are variations of this legend, but most involve a mother or grandmother whose long braid becomes the narwhal’s distinctive spiralled tusk.

"Most of the Inuit storytelling has been oral tradition," Piirainen says. "Seeing them reflected back in these miniatures is so wonderful to keep that tradition going."

She notes a shift in Inuit carving, from utilitarian carving to create tools — such as the qulliq, the stone lamp still used today — to carving as a fine art. The miniatures were often created to be traded or sold to a Hudson’s Bay Company post or Inuit-owned co-op.

"I think one of the main reasons the miniature was maybe preferred was because of its size. Many Inuit were travelling, and you could stash them away. But I think also it was maybe the challenge of working at such a small scale and really perfecting the detail of each piece," Piirainen says.

She points to one piece that features a flock of tiny — we’re talking top-of-your-pinkie-fingernail tiny — ivory birds nesting in what look like cliffs jutting out from the water.

"You can imagine the cliffs. If you were out on the water kayaking, this is probably something you’d see from afar — all these nesting birds. For this artist, I think it was that test of skill," she says. (The exhibition is equipped with two iPads so visitors can also take a closer look at the carvings.)

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Alooloo Inutiq’s piece Dancing Walrus is made of ivory.</p>


Alooloo Inutiq’s piece Dancing Walrus is made of ivory.

Before coming to Winnipeg, Piirainen studied film in Ottawa, but was always interested in curating Inuit art. She has roots in the north; she has fond memories of childhood years spent in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. She’s looking forward to the 2020 opening of the Inuit Art Centre, and the curatorial opportunities her new role will present.

One of her goals is to get more Inuit involved and connect with Winnipeg’s urban Inuit population.

"I think we’re starting to see this shift with institutions — not just in Canada, but elsewhere as well — to having that representation and making sure Indigenous people and Inuit are involved in telling their stories in relation to the artwork," she says. "I think it’s a really great opportunity for me to be here. I realize it’s a huge thing, and I’m super happy to be here."


Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

Read full biography


Advertise With Us

Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.

To those who have made donations, thank you.

To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.

The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.

After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.

If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.

We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.

The Free Press will close this commenting platform at noon on July 14.

We want to thank those who have shared their views over the years as part of this reader engagement initiative.

In the coming weeks, the Free Press will announce new opportunities for readers to share their thoughts and to engage with our staff and each other.

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.


Advertise With Us