For countless generations, the Inuit have lived and died in the arctic expanses of the Northern Hemisphere, from Siberia to Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Why humans would settle in such an inhospitable place is an unanswerable question, and yet they continue to call this frozen landscape home, a place where double digits below zero is more or less the norm this time of year. And it’s here, in this unspeakably cold and for so long changeless place, that artmaking has become a significant economic force, moving beyond the necessity of functional objects into the making of art for its own sake — and as a commodity.
The official government of the region of Nunavut — created in 1999 as part of a Canadian land claim settlement with the area’s aboriginal people — collaborated with the Canadian government and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., to create the multilingual exhibition Our Land: Contemporary Art from the Arctic, on view now at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
The Eiteljorg, an institution that continues to connect native cultures to the ever-changing present while preserving the art and artifacts of the authentic past, is an obvious choice for the exhibition, which strikes a fine balance between showcasing beautiful art in both traditional Inuit and European-inspired art forms, from soapstone carvings to printmaking.
Despite being divided thematically into “Being,” “Family” and “Community,” the exhibition reveals how intrinsically linked all three of these notions are in Inuit cultures. Even the tiniest errors in judgment — from a slip in the snow to a mislaid tool — can result in disaster in such a harsh environment, an ethos that has evolved a certain subtlety of observation that is evident in the art. From the spiritual guidance of shamans to the support of family and the interdependence of community life, the Inuit share an awareness and appreciation of the simplest things that many of us take for granted. Now the Inuit have grocery stores, classrooms and television, but as is often the case, the artists are working to preserve the essence of collective identity — past and present.
A reconstructed 19th century Angakkuq (shaman) coat made of caribou fur, by Jeannie Arnaanuk of Igloolik, captures the reverence for the spiritual realm and the importance of shamanic wisdom. Irene Avaalaaqiaq’s “All Different Thoughts,” a stylized image of several faces speaking individually but connected as one, speaks to the notion of the tension between individual desires and the collective of family. In the etching “Whale’s Fate” (AP 2/5), by Sheojuk Etidlooie of Cape Dorset, a slain whale is attached to a large sack filled with what appear to be seeds, indicative of the precarious cycle of life and its dependence on the gifts of animal sacrifice. The glowing tones of deep olive and russet are not the colors of emptiness, but rather the colors of the complex interplay of death and life.
As often happens with aboriginal cultures, modern conveniences are both a blessing and a curse. Television has largely replaced the oral tradition of storytelling, while Inuit artists document and preserve their way of life through film. Exhibition viewers can make connections between the ethereal beauty of the art and the reality of the hunt and life inside the igloo through documentary footage.
The carving “Mother and Child,” made of Markham Bay serpentine by Kiawak Ashoona of Cape Dorset, speaks best to this tension between new and old: A mother’s face is set with determination, her lower lip extended in pride, as her baby rebels in an obstinate cry.
Our Land: Contemporary Art from the Arctic is on view through Feb. 15, 2009, at the Eiteljorg Museum, 500 W. Washington St. Call 317-636-WEST or visit www.eiteljorg.org for hours and ticket information.