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History of Canadian Inuit Art

History of Canadian Inuit Art


History of Canadian Inuit ArtThe 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 very bold and adventurous. 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. Although these visitors to the North introduced some new trade goods, especially rifles and tea, tobacco and flour, 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. All this was to change dramatically over the next two decades. For a variety of political and strategic 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 of Canadian Indians. In 1947 family allowance cheques began to be issued, administered by the Hudson's Bay Company or the RCMP, and followed by old-age pensions in 1948. During the 1950s annual visits by a government ship administered medical surveys and tests for tuberculosis. In 1956 a program of low-cost housing was introduced. In 1955 a selection of children was sent to Chesterfield Inlet to be taught by the Grey Nuns until, in 1959, federal way schools were built across the North. By 1970 the process of giving up a nomadic lifestyle and moving into permanent settlements was completed. 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. Consequently, the main means of procuring cash had dried up for Inuit trappers. Although as hunters they lived largely off the land, they had become dependent on cash to buy their rifles and ammunition. With nothing to trade, families experienced severe deprivation and periods of starvation.

History of Canadian Inuit Art 2
Against this background of rapid cultural change, contemporary Inuit art came into being. Soon sculptures replaced the white fox pelts as a way to procure cash. The transition from one object of barter to another was fairly smooth. For two hundred years Inuit hunters had, whenever possible, bartered little souvenir items with any of the groups finding their way into the North. However, this production and trade of carvings, usually made out of ivory, was sporadic at best and only tool: place locally. 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. He solicited more and brought back a whole selection that he presented to the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal and so the adventure began. The Guild, the Hudson's Bay Company, and the federal government established a distribution system and a market in the South was created. Tile stage or the enthusiastic reception of contemporary Inuit art was set. If we want to appreciate Inuit art from this period, we need to be conscious of its context. Here was a group of people displaced and dispossessed, 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. They had lost control over their lives. The powerful trio of the RCMP, the church, and the Hudson's Bay Company made all the vital decisions for them. Next in line was the Northern Services Officer from the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, who represented the awesome power of the federal government. Was it any wonder that people grabbed with such fervor 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. Life as hunters and keepers of the camp had not prepared them for settlement life, which required different skills, such as a working knowledge of English. 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. Also, the law of survival had taught the people to be creative in an environment that required knowing how to repair a rifle or fabricate little spare parts if necessary because the next hardware store was thousands of miles away. Making art also helped to survive emotionally. Creating artworks depicting the nomadic lifestyle was a way of preserving it in their minds as they had to become acclimatized to a new and alien culture. It was also a way of regaining control over their lives. Every artist became an entrepreneur, quarrying his own stone, fashioning his own tools. 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. 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 minds and imaginations 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, indeed.


Contemporary Inuit art has made its creators and their culture famous throughout the world. Were it not for the tremendous outpouring of artworks, the Inuit might possibly be just another interesting anthropological footnote in the history of the world's cultures. Memories of life on the land are still fresh, especially for older Inuit, and the past is very much alive in Inuit culture. Although much of the art does dwell on the past for inspiration, it is important to remember that Inuit society is not "frozen in time." 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 sculptures, graphics, and textiles. 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 the profound and rapid change in the second half of the History of Canadian Inuit Art 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. By combining cultural and biographical 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.

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