“What is contemporary?” Christine Lalonde, associate curator of indigenous art at the National Gallery of Canada, asked this question during “Inuit Art: Trajectories of Transformation,” a symposium held at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on January 25th.
This was an issue that came up, directly or indirectly, with many of the symposium’s speakers, as artists and academics looked at contemporary Inuit art within a context of continuity and change, attempting to recognize its distinct history without ghettoizing it.
The question of Inuit art’s place within the mainstream of modern art was also addressed by a Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibition that opened the same day. “Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art,” which runs until April 14th, is the most ambitious Inuit show ever mounted by the WAG, and it’s packed with varied, vital and clearly contemporary work.
The WAG is home to the largest public collection of Inuit art in the world, but its 13,000 works often seem to be hidden like the submerged portion of an iceberg. With recent announcements about the WAG’s new purpose-built Inuit Art and Learning Centre—designed by American architect Michael Maltzan and scheduled to break ground in 2014—the Inuit collection is getting ready for its close-up.
One of three major exhibitions that are marking the WAG’s 100th-anniversary year, “Creation and Transformation” spreads across several galleries in a chronological arrangement that traces contemporary Inuit art from its early era in the 1950s right up to today. The WAG’s long-time Inuit art curator, Darlene Coward Wight, dates the modern era of Inuit art from a sales exhibition of carvings at the Montreal-based Canadian Handicrafts Guild in November 1949. This historical marker underlines contemporary Inuit art’s refreshingly frank and open relationship with the art market, which has been one of its great strengths.
Wight looks at the 1950s, when shipments of Inuit works regularly came to the Hudson’s Bay Company offices in Winnipeg, and at the rise of Inuit art co-operatives in the 1960s. In the 1990s, new technological developments in travel, mobile communications and the Internet vastly increased the interchange between North and South, and by the 2000s, artists like Annie Pootoogook had begun to change the popular perception of Inuit art. While earlier artists, like the late Kenojuak Ashevak, brought Inuit art to the wider world—Kenojuak’s 1960 print The Enchanted Owl is instantly recognizable—they remained somehow set apart. With a Sobey Art Award and a solo show at the Power Plant, both in 2006, Pootoogook was the first Inuit artist to become a crossover art star in the South.
Wight has chosen 115 works from the WAG’s collection for a show that’s comprehensive without being crammed. Taken together, these works illustrate larger chronological trends, but the best pieces are strikingly cool and singular, from the succinct elegance of Joseph Pootoogook’s Caribou (1958) to the clear, elemental simplicity of Jessie Oonark’s Woman (1970) to the zany expressiveness of Karoo Ashevak’s Shaman (1971).
Recent works include Ningeokuluk Teevee’s cheeky coloured-pencil drawing Tattooed Woman (2010), a mash-up of old and new cultural signifiers in which a nude woman with traditional arm markings holds a cigarette with exaggerated nonchalance. In Chopper (2007), Jamasie Padluq Pitseolak uses the shiny, polished green stone often associated with polar bear and walrus sculptures to construct a meticulous replica of a motorcycle, playfully upending expectations.
Annie Pootoogook’s reversals are much darker. Man Hitting Woman (2000–2001) is part of a series of works that illustrate the small and sometimes ugly realities of daily life in isolated northern communities. Here the violence is made all the more upsetting by Pootoogook’s dry, detailed style and matter-of-fact tone.
While the exhibition clearly traces some 60 years of history, the symposium suggested some possible directions for the next decade, with references to performance, spoken word, film and video. Zacharias Kunuk, whose breakout Inuktitut-language film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner won acclaim at TIFF and Cannes in 2001, spoke in a panel discussion along with filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. Kunuk related that he made carvings as a young man, but that for him “it was just a way to make money for movie tickets.” His choice—to move from carving to cinema—is a perfect example of the evolving nature of Inuit art.