Exploring the North

Craft, Handloom, Art, Micro-history, Art History

Exploring the North: The Crafts of the North American Tundra

McComb, Jessie F.


As winter settles down upon my quiet New England hometown and I observe the most recent snow that has fallen on our streets and sidewalks, I can’t help but think of those living further north where the wind blows colder and the days are only too brief. Recently, the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, displayed an exhibit of craft, art and film from Inuit people in the arctic north, in their gallery space created specifically for rotating installations of Native America art. And on a blustery winter day in late December, I had the fortunate experience of stumbling onto this exhibit.

The exhibit, titled Our Land: Contemporary Art from the Arctic, is the first major exhibition of art and craft from the Canadian territory of Nunavut, which lies in northwest North America just inside the Arctic Circle. Nunavut, created in 1999 after the Canadian government reformulated its territories, spans from the Hudson Bay to the North Pole and houses ecologies that range from barren vistas to mountains to the silent but lively oceans. These harsh yet beautiful conditions act as only a part of the inspiration for Inuit art in Nunavut.

Our Land was born from a collaboration between the Peabody Essex Museum, the Government of Canada and the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, and is part of an on-going series at the Peabody Essex Museum that focuses on Native American art and culture. This series also falls in line with the museums commitment “to forging partnerships with Native American artists through projects such as the Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations (ECHO).”

The Inuit art and craft on display during the exhibition ranges in medium from stone, leatherwork, pottery and textiles on the craft side to lithographs, drawings, sculpture, photography and film on the fine art side. Although the forms and mediums of all the pieces varied greatly, the significance behind each and its source of inspiration clearly came from one unified origin: the culture and spirit of the Inuit people.

Karen Kramer, assistant curator of Native American Art, along with John Grimes, deputy director for research, new media and information, curated this exhibit around the themes of cosmology and spirituality, families, place, season, time and gathering. In order to explore Traditional Inuit Knowledge, or Inuit Qaujimajtuqangit, more deeply through the exhibit, Kramer organized the works into three sections. The first section considers Being where works that focus on cosmology and spirituality explore the responsibilities and challenges of the Inuit people in the modern world. In the second section, works that emphasize Family, where traditional knowledge is reinforced and acquired, display images of individuals, the community and the nuclear family, and examine themes like individual identity within a culture. Lastly, the third section examines works which highlight Community and the way in which traditional knowledge is preserved throughout time, place and season in a changing social context.

What is interesting about Inuit art and craft is the unique implementation of technology, both modern and ancient, each artist or artisan uses. For example, an artisan may create a stone Inuksuk, literally “likeness of a person,” which acts as cairn or landmark to identify a specific place of significance in the endless and barren tundra. The creation of cairns is an old method of marking the land used in traditional societies the world over. In terms of new technology, Inuit artists have melded traditional Inuit themes like family, nature and survival with modern mediums such as film. These endeavors have met with great success. In Zacharias Kunuk’s film Atanarjuat or The Fast Runner won the Camera d’Or for Film Debut at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. In the Our Land exhibit, Kunuk’s other film Nunavut is incorporated into a video installation and highlights Inuit art’s auspicious advance into the fine art world.

However, Inuit craft and art still hangs in a precarious balance where traditional artisans struggle with the influences and appeals of modernization. Much like Indian folk art Inuit craft strives for survival in this ever-accelerating world that requires constant stimulation. In both cultures artisan must deal with issues of authenticity, preserving images, meaning and significance while bending to market trends in order to earn a living from the beautiful items they create. In Inuit North America however, there is lack of directly accessible markets due to its remoteness and harsh environmental conditions. Instead Inuit artisans must turn into artists and rely on the acceptance of the fine art world where their images, stories and culture can live on.

For more information about Inuit Art, Culture and History go to the Peabody Essex Museum’s web site where there is a list of resource web sites, interviews with Inuit artisans and singers and a video link which depicts the construction of a stone figure or inuksuk at the museum

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