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Inuit art struggles for acceptance

Angakkuq exhibit at AGA offers profound insight

By: Scott Hayes

  |  Posted: Wednesday, Jan 22, 2014 06:00 am

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  • SPIRIT CREATURE – This piece made in 2000 is comprised of whalebone, home-tanned sealskin, musk-ox hair, bone and stone. It depicts Tornaq, or Spirit Creature.
    SPIRIT CREATURE – This piece made in 2000 is comprised of whalebone, home-tanned sealskin, musk-ox hair, bone and stone. It depicts Tornaq, or Spirit Creature.
    BILL TRACY/Supplied photo
  • WHALEBONE CARVING  This work by Elisapee Ishulutaq of Pangniqtuuq, Nunavut belongs to St. Albert resident Elke Blodgett.
    WHALEBONE CARVING This work by Elisapee Ishulutaq of Pangniqtuuq, Nunavut belongs to St. Albert resident Elke Blodgett.
  • STONE CARVING  Shaman Transformation by Peter Emikotailak.
    STONE CARVING Shaman Transformation by Peter Emikotailak.
  • INUIT ART  The title and the artist of this work are both unknown.
    INUIT ART The title and the artist of this work are both unknown.

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Preview

Angakkuq: Between Two Worlds; Spiritual and Mythological Figures in Inuit and Inuvialuit Art

Show runs until Family Day, Monday, Feb. 17.

Art Gallery of Alberta
2 Sir Winston Churchill Square in downtown Edmonton

Call 780-422-6223 or visit www.youraga.ca for more information.

Inuit art has many diverse forms and it's often created from some unusual materials.

People in Inuit culture are so accustomed to creating these works to express their mythology and their heritage that they might not recognize the full value that their creations contribute to their culture, says Eunice Barron, a member of the Inuit Art Enthusiasts, an Edmonton group devoted to collecting and encouraging the acceptance of Northern Canada's artists for more than 30 years.

"The Inuit didn't have a word for art. They didn't apparently understand that concept," Barron said.

The enthusiasts hope that their show at the Art Gallery of Alberta will help change that.

Angakkuq is the Inuktitut word that refers to the Inuit figure who could best be described as a shaman, the person who connects the living with the spirit world. It's also the name of the exhibit found in the main floor gallery space at the downtown gallery in Edmonton.

It's an entrancing exploration of images and sculptures depicting the Angakkuq, the Inuit people's relationships with animals and the intersections where people and animals become one.

A magical tour

Tornaq (or Spirit Creature) greets you as you enter the doors. The 31-centimetre high sculpture is Yellowknife artist Goota Ashoona's compelling creation of a horned, fanged figure in dance. Without any warning, you have suddenly entered an insightful otherworld showing the playful and serious sides of Inuit culture.

Angakkuq: Between Two Worlds opened at the end of October. The exhibit is a broad overview of art encompassing a half-century of work created by more than 50 artists (some established; others not) from more than 20 communities, everywhere from Tuktoyaktuk to Kangiqsualujjuaq and all the way to Iqaluit.

"Some of them are forms that seem quite foreign. They may not be the type of thing you see every day," suggested Laura Ritchie, the gallery's exhibition manager for the show. "Whalebone sculptures are not something you catch in everyday exhibitions."

There's a wealth of imagery of the Angakkuq shaman figure and other figures in the middle of some transformation. There are mermaid-like creatures and other sea monsters, animals with human faces (like Elisapee Ishulutaq's Spirit Figure, a friendly whalebone figure in repose – on loan to the gallery from St. Albert resident Elke Blodgett's own collection) or images like Agnes Nanogak's stone print depicting the myth of a polar bear defending itself, warding off a crane attack by manifesting multiple bird heads out of its own body.

The fact that many of these objects are created out of animal bones adds another dimension of meaning too.

Blodgett, well known as an environmentalist and artist, first became interested in the work because of the use of whalebone. Whales, she lamented, have seen a dramatic decrease in population numbers from the whaling industry in various areas of the world. For that reason, whale hunts have been banned since the mid-1980s.

"I was fascinated – I still am – with living whales everywhere. I was very upset that they were getting killed: being hunted and slaughtered. They still are," she began. "I thought, 'I have to save every little bit I can from what's left of the whales."

Whalebone sculptures are, to her, not just a way of appreciating Inuit culture but also a way of honouring the spirits of the animals. This was so important to her that she even sold some of her own art in order to collect new pieces.

"In my mind, they're all alive. Every bit in there still has life in it. There's something magical about what's left of those majestic creatures. Their spirits carry us in them, and the animal world in them, and nature in them."

In the long shadows of the North

The Inuit Art Enthusiasts is the oldest such group in Canada. One of its objectives, dating back to its formation in the late 1970s, has always been to tell others about the art that might otherwise lay hidden forever.

"It's always been a bit of an orphan," Barron suggested. "When stuff started coming south in the early '60s, it tended to appear in ethnographical backgrounds. It wasn't regarded as art. Over the years, that has definitely changed."

It's still an uphill battle. Despite the treasure trove of hundreds of pieces that the members of the enthusiasts have in their collections, and could easily fill the AGA's much larger exhibit spaces, it seems doubtful that it would ever happen. Art is a popularity contest in some cases, Barron added.

"It's hard to know how much it really gets into people. You've got to start somewhere. The first thing is to get people to look at it."

Half a century ago, the federal and territorial governments helped to further Inuit artists and their art, partly as a kind of make-work employment program. It was there to help them to make a living and stay off of the public trust.

Whatever reason was behind it, the support worked.

"Some of the stuff that came out was absolutely terrific," Barron said. "One of the joys of the early work to my way of thinking is that it was unself-conscious. I have read since that a lot of them were motivated by wanting to tell the rest of the world what their life was like, how it was living in the north in traditional times."

The uphill battle to recognize the value of Inuit art and Inuit culture continues, however.

"I don't know how much people now perceive it as art," Barron said. "I'm sure there are still some who don't because that's how it started: as something that was ethnographical or craft. It wasn't art. Somewhere along the line it gradually transformed into being accepted as art and being shown in art galleries as opposed to museums."

"I call the kind of work that we've got in here 'art', unquestionably."


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