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Art Gallery Aims to Amplify Inuit Voices

Canada’s Winnipeg Art Gallery is already home to the world’s biggest collection of Inuit art. This spring, work gets started on providing this collection with a fitting home at the new Inuit Art Centre.

Written by Erling Friis-Baastad Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
This architectural rendering shows a view of the Inuit Art Centre’s vault from the observation lobby. Work on the building starts this spring and should be complete by 2020.Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery

A museum is not only about displaying attractive objects, says Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) director and CEO Stephen Borys. Museums are also about bringing people closer together.

Now the art gallery – the oldest civic gallery in the country – has been presented with a new opportunity to do just that, thanks in part to Winnipeg’s growing Indigenous population and its longtime role as a hub for the North. This spring, construction begins on the long-discussed Inuit Art Centre at the WAG. Tentatively slated to open in 2020, the groundbreaking center will feature works by artists from across the Canadian Arctic.

Among them are Kiugak Ashoona’s green serpentinite stone pieces depicting shamanic subjects such as Natturalik, the bird shaman, and Karoo Ashevak’s whale bone angakkuit (shamans), noted for their wild, asymmetrical eyes, flaring nostrils and gaping mouths. Work by graphic artist Kenojuak Ashevak, known for her whimsical and decorative interpretations of owls, and Marion Tuu’luq’s colorfully memorable fabric collage wall hangings are also included.

“I think there couldn’t be a better time in the history of the WAG to do something that is truly game-changing,” says Borys. The gallery has already assembled the largest collection of Inuit art in the world, and has published more books and presented more exhibitions on the subject than any other institution. This focus has, in turn, raised the profile of the Inuit and their culture. “I think we’ve done very well, but the Inuit Art Centre could do even more,” he says.

Every northern show tells a new story from the land, Borys explains. Sometimes the stories are joyous and sometimes they’re sad, but the important thing for the museum is to make sure that “the first voice people hear, the first voice they embrace, is Inuit,” he says.

“Too often Inuit stories have been interrupted, muffled and not allowed to be heard clearly in the south. Our job is to make sure the voice is heard, that it is given a forum to communicate beliefs, ideas and perspectives.”

The art is imbued with the spiritual bonds between Inuit, their land and their nonhuman neighbors. “Every time I go north, to a community in the Arctic, I’m changed,” says Borys. “Not only is there a huge geographical divide, but there are other ways that have separated us.” Patterns of misunderstanding and acts of systemic mistreatment by government and church officials, including forced relocation of Inuit, are high on the list of historic wrongs cited as haunting Inuit today.

Beyond serving as a place to visit and celebrate artistic skill, the Inuit Art Centre could be a bridge that connects people, says Borys. “Art is a powerful communication tool … We could be a mouthpiece for the North. That is my goal.”

He praises WAG’s curator of Inuit art, Darlene Coward Wight, who shares his goal and has been essential in creating a vision for the center. “Wight is probably the most respected curator of Inuit art in the world,” he says.

Through the art center, Wight will be able to help mentor the next generation of Inuit curators and programmers. “We are so eager to have Inuit involved in everything that we do,” Wight says. “There are not many Inuit curators these days. Hopefully there will be soon.”

The history of Inuit art for export is not a long one, says Wight. What is considered the contemporary period of Inuit art really got underway after World War II. Many Inuit were living in hunting camps then, but had come to depend on the fur trade for guns and ammunition, flour and sugar. After the war, the value of fox furs fell. Trappers couldn’t get fair prices. At the same time, caribou populations were decreasing in much of the North.

Among visitors from the South who understood the dire situation faced by these people was author and artist James Houston. Houston suggested that stone could be used to produce durable art objects that could be sold and safely shipped. At first, people hesitated. They called stone “the material we make into pots.”

“But things picked up,” says Wight, who has written much about the initial days of the contemporary period. “Stone art for export became more prevalent in the early 50s, followed by paper works – prints from stone – in the late 50s.”

Sales exhibitions in southern Canada, especially in Montreal, brought Inuit art to public attention. As art became recognized as a viable means of making a profit, Hudson Bay trading posts bought works and shipped them to headquarters in Winnipeg. These were added to the Inuit art donated to the gallery from private collections.

That the WAG is now undertaking the Inuit Art Centre is no mere “flash in the pan,” says Wight. More than half of the WAG collection – 13,000 pieces – is composed of Inuit art. A partnership with the government of Nunavut alone has resulted in 7,200 pieces. And the collection is growing as word of the impending art center spreads. “We really got in on the ground level and now WAG is bursting at the seams,” says Wight.

“The Arctic is isolated still and few people get to visit it,” she says, highlighting a great opportunity for reconciliation. “Those who visit the new art center should acquire understanding and tolerance.”

Winnipeg’s Inuit Art Centre will be accessible to travelers from around the world, creating more excitement and expanding markets for these works of art. “There are always people who have never encountered Inuit art before and who think that it is just what you see in the airport, little carvings of polar bears and seals,” says Wight.

“There is so much more to it than that.”

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