Traditional Culture and Values
While much Inuit art is “about” traditional culture and values, it is also very much an expression of the experiences, values and aesthetics of individual artists who have had to come to grips with rapid and profound change in the second half of the twentieth century. Inuit art is often “autobiographical;” even if specific events are not always depicted, and it reflects the life histories of its makers as well as their artistic talents.
The artists had no romantic notions about art-it was a way to survive, and they accepted the new vocation unquestioningly. The ones less fitted for making sculpture took other jobs whenever possible.
These visitors to the North introduced some new trade goods, especially rifles and tobacco, flour and tea, the nomadic lifestyle of the Inuit hunters remained fairly untouched by the intruders. In the late 1940s most Inuit still lived in small family camps, used dogsleds for travel, lived in igloos during the winter, and divided their time between trapping white fox and hunting.
Was it any wonder that people grabbed with such fervour the opportunity to make a living through carving? This was their way out of humiliating dependence, all the harder to bear since they had enjoyed total freedom and independence before.
Contemporary Inuit art has made its creators and their culture famous throughout the world. Memories of life on the land are still fresh, especially for older Inuit, and the past is very much alive in Inuit culture.
If we want to appreciate Inuit art from this period, we need to be conscious of its context. Here was a group of people dispossessed and displaced, out of their element, trapped in a small community with other Inuit groups with whom they had never before had occasion or desire to associate.
The astonishing fact is that this art, born out of economic necessity, has such evocative power. Its appeal lies in its honesty and stark simplicity. Having focused imaginations and minds not burdened with the redundant images that flood people living in an industrialized world-these were pre-television times-these self-taught artists created images of stunning visual power and archetypal significance-reason for celebration.
When James Houston, a young adventurous artist from Toronto, landed in Inukjuak in Arctic Quebec in 1948 he was presented with one of these whittlings and, with the eye of the artist, recognized its beauty. Tile stage or the enthusiastic reception of contemporary Inuit art was set.
By combining biographical and cultural elements with an appreciation of the communicative power and beauty of individual works, we may begin to truly understand and appreciate the complexity-and the miracle-of Inuit art.
The North has been Canada’s last frontier. Until the Second World War – it had remained largely ignored by the rest of Canada, except for the adventurous and very bold. Since the mid-1700s a succession of explorers looking for the Northwest Passage, of whalers looking for oil, Hudson’s Bay traders looking for fox pelts as well as missionaries looking for souls ventured into the North and met its inhabitants, the Inuit.
Against this background of rapid cultural change, contemporary Inuit art came into being. For two hundred years Inuit hunters had, whenever possible, bartered little souvenir items with any of the groups finding their way into the North.
For a variety of strategic and political reasons the federal government of Canada started to take an active interest in the welfare of its northern citizens. In 1939 a ruling of the Supreme Court had accorded Inuit the same rights to health, welfare, and education as Canadian Indians. In 1955 a selection of children were sent to Chesterfield Inlet to be taught by the Grey Nuns until, in 1959, federal day schools were built across the North.
Making art provided a solution. All the superb skills, honed over centuries in the struggle for survival-knowledge of Arctic animals, an astonishing visual memory, infinite patience and perseverance-could be applied to making a sculpture.
Making art also helped to survive emotionally. It was also a way of regaining control over their lives.
Against this background of rapid cultural change, contemporary Inuit art came into being. If we want to appreciate Inuit art from this period, we need to be conscious of its context. Contemporary Inuit art has made its creators and their culture famous throughout the world. Memories of life on the land are still fresh, especially for older Inuit, and the past is very much alive in Inuit culture. Given the spontaneous nature of the art, however, perhaps we may be forgiven if we are occasionally seduced into believing that Inuit continue to live the life that they portray, and often glorify, in their textiles, sculptures and graphics.
One of the reasons the Canadian government felt compelled to intervene was the receipt of reports from visitors to the North about the deteriorating conditions among the Inuit, partially caused by the fact that the price for white fox had plummeted on the world market. The main means for procuring cash had dried up for Inuit trippers.