Inuit lifestyle has fascinated me ever since elementary school. Learning about people living in igloos coincided with a surprise visit from my nomadic grandfather who had vacated cold Alberta for the even colder Inuvik. He talked about the beauty of the Northern Lights, winter nights that barely turned to day and summer days when the sun never really set. Beaded skin wallets, brought for my aunts, were the most exotic items we had ever seen. I remember the soft feeling of the skin, the smoky, earthy odor, and the layer of colorful beads sewn so daintily. It was my first exposure to life styles different than mine and it whetted a lifelong interest in other cultures.
Learning there was an Inuit Art exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on a recent visit, I spent an afternoon exploring. Wandering through the display, I could hear my grandfather’s boisterous laugh as he regaled us with his experiences. I recalled him saying the fur faced inside to insulate against the cold when I stopped at the family wearing traditional family clothing. I see him in my mind’s eye, in our living room with 6 kids splayed on the floor listening rapturously. One gets a warm and glorious feeling when something in your adult life worms its way into your subconscious and transports you back to your childhood.
The Inuit Art exhibit was like that. Simply amazing, I saw a range of items with enough selection to see the commonalities, both in subjects and treatments. As with any cultural art form, different areas, communities and individuals affect the form and styles.
Inuit Art as an art form is fairly recent. Historically, a need caused the creation of an
item from a readily available resource. Carving of tools, toys, eating and cooking implements were done in bone, antlers, tusks and a variety of stones. Tents, clothing, blankets and needlework utilized fur and leather. Figures of animals and mythical creatures as well as family settings represented their traditions, beliefs and legends. Ancient artifacts are rare as most items were smaller and in materials that were subject to wear and tear. The migratory travel between summer and winter camps meant one was only keeping things that were useful. Elders transferred life skills and traditions to young ones through sharing and language.
The 50’s and 60’s saw a more organized approach to collecting and documenting artifacts and supporting the sharing of art forms. As well, the introduction of new printing and art techniques helped bring Inuit Art into the public domain.
Modern Inuit Art Is High Fashion
Today there are a new generation of artists sharing innovative and different takes on their
history and culture. Art provides a new economic currency to many remote communities. Access to the world has grown with the event of social media and the internet and the world has a broader window into the ways and the people of the far North.
Three Inuit women from Nunavut are examples of unique work which has received international attention. Their work is beautiful.
- Veronica Puskas showed her “Pillars of Strength” quilt which won the Quilt Canada’s award for Excellence in Work.
- Nala Peters makes sealskin* bras, panties and other clothing. Her work was featured in the Ottawa art exhibit Floe Edge: Contemporary Art and Collaborations from Nunavut.
- Nicole Camphaug sells contemporary footwear including sealskin* high heels and baby shoes through her company ENB Designs. You can find her on Facebook here.
*The EU exempted seal skin from their ban when the skins are certified
as harvested by indigenous peoples. The Nunavut government negotiated this agreement in 2015.
The United States does not allow seal skin products into the country. Seal skins are on the US endangered species list.
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