Edmonton has always prided itself as the gateway to the north. Now an Inuit doll exhibit on display at the Royal Alberta Museum is a cultural gateway that pays homage to the resourcefulness of Canada’s northern women.
Inuujaq: Dolls of the North is a collection of 80 dolls representing 19 Inuit communities from the Western Arctic. The dolls, each one an individual design, embodies much more than just warm fuzzies.
“As Canadians it is important to understand other Canadians and know who we as a nation are. Edmonton has a strong relationship to the north,” says Susan Berry, museum curator of ethnology.
“Many journeys to the north begin in Edmonton. There is also a significant Inuit community in Edmonton. Many are here for school and work. Through this exhibit, we hope to present a better understanding of the north and strengthen our connections.”
In some ways, Inuujaq (pronounced in-oo-yak and meaning ‘resembles a person’) illustrates the essence of the Inuit people’s traditional way of life and culture as interpreted by their descendants. Although the way of life has changed, as has that of many indigenous groups worldwide, they are still linked to the past through this tradition.
For centuries Inuit women used doll-making as a way to teach their daughters how to cut, wield and sew hides and furs to fashion lasting garments for themselves and their families. It was a necessary part of survival.
However, many of the dolls in the exhibit were never intended as toys or teaching tools. Rather they were created by individual artists or through northern community cooperatives for sale in the southern tourist trade.
Guest curators Bill and Michelle Tracy, private collectors of Inuit and Native American art for 40 years, were invited to develop the exhibit. They examined 120 dolls before whittling down the numbers to a manageable 80. RAM contributed 20 dolls. The remainder is from various private collections, including the Tracys’ treasure trove.
“This is an excellent opportunity to see things not readily seen,” says Bill Tracy. “It benefits the museum because they get to show artifacts that are normally stored. And it benefits private collectors because they can share their collection with the public. In this collaboration, everyone benefits.”
The Tracy collection was launched after an uncle from the north came for a visit and gave them an Inuit doll. Not long after, Bill went to an art auction and gave Michelle three Inuit dolls as gifts.
“The clothing was so fascinating. It represented perilous times for them and somehow it resonated with us,” explains Michelle. “The more we learned, the more fascinating it became.”
The oldest doll in the exhibit, dated at 1938, comes from Baffin. She is a packing doll (a mother carrying a small child in a pouch under her hood) constructed from driftwood with a prominent nose and pencilled eyes.
Each of the dolls tells a different story and shows how the artist’s life and environment influenced the design. No two dolls are alike. Blending natural materials with modern textiles, doll makers used sealskin, caribou hide, muskrat fur, musk ox hair, sic sic (ground squirrel), arctic hare fur, wolf, stone, wood, antlers and fabric. The result is that each doll has its own character and individuality, a reflection of the craftswoman’s personality and community landscape.
Most of the faces are either moulded, carved, embroidered or drawn. Men are often dressed in resplendent furs including beaded hide boots and moccasins. Women, on the other hand, are often costumed in both traditional hides and contemporary fabrics revealing the influence of southern Canadian culture.
Perhaps some of the most intriguing are the character dolls, usually of a prominent individual in the community. In one particular portrait doll of a local doctor, craftswoman Mona Tiktalek has not only dressed him in bright fabrics, but also plopped a pair of glasses on his nose and a pipe in his mouth.
“They have an eye-catching ability and many details come into play,” Berry adds.
For generations women in northern areas taught their daughters how to clothe the community. Today the collectible art of doll making continues to pass on the knowledge and skills, and through its intricate beauty they promote Inuit tradition, fashion and culture.
Inuujaq: Dolls of the Canadian Arctic is on display until April 28, 2013. The Royal Alberta Museum is located at 12845 – 102 Ave. Admission is $11 adults, $28 for families, $8 seniors, $7 for students, $5 for youth and children under six are free. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Check http://www.royalalbertamuseum.ca for holiday times.