Starting to Understand Each Other
October 24, 2002 – January 9, 2003
Helen Christou Gallery
Curator: Curtis Joseph Collins
This exhibition of works from The U of L’s Art Collection offers a glimpse of how Inuit artists have comprehended the growing presence of Euro-North American social, technological and political standards in their homeland.
Starting to Understand Each Other
This exhibition of works from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery’s collection offers viewers a glimpse of how Inuit artists have comprehended the growing presence of Euro-North American social, technological, and political standards in their homeland. Such cultural testaments to a capacity for change and resistance, abilities that have served the Inuit well for thousands of years, are particularly relevant at the outset of the twenty-first century when the West’s appetite for land and natural resources seems insatiable.
Egevaduluq Ragee’s (1920 – 1983) lithographic print on your left records one of the many housing campaigns initiated by the Canadian government throughout the Arctic since the 1950s. Inuit communities were encouraged and coerced into abandoning their temporary campsites for permanent settlements, as Ragee did in 1967 when she moved to Cape Dorset. Her work on paper depicts a family on a surreal ride atop two Arctic char, as their move to a brightly coloured federal-issued bungalow is celebrated in a mythic way. The thin black outlines used by Ragee to render both the house and people on a flattened plane against a stark white background are formal qualities also found in the stone cut and stencil print on your right. Napatchie Pootoogook’s (b. 1938) graphic representation of her first encounter with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer features a carefully balanced grouping of figures posed in front of a unique form of Inuit architecture – the igloo. Canada’s policing of the Arctic dates back to 1903 when the Northwest Mounted Police set-up detachments, and Pootoogook’s image evokes a childhood memory of her early nomadic life on the southwest coast of Baffin Island.
Exchanges between the Inuit and Europeans, or “Kadluka” as they are referred to in Inuktitut, date to the arrival of British ships in the north during the late sixteenth century. By the mid seventeenth century the Inuit had begun producing small ivory carvings specifically for trade with visiting sailors, and among the most common items created by these anonymous artists were cribbage boards. In front of you are three undated examples of such boards, which were used to count points in the popular English card game known as Cribbage. The largest walrus tusk board, with its black line etchings of local flora and fauna is thus an aesthetic antecedent to the aforementioned prints. Copper and steel, which are foreign metals, were highly prized among the Inuit and the metallic inlay and pegs serve to enhance the creamy white surface of the second largest board. The smallest and most sculptural board, fashioned by a little known carver named Francois Quassa, includes a miniature ivory figure, sled, and igloo and is capped by a soapstone caribou head. Such diverse treatments of this alien gaming device contribute to a greater aboriginal North American artistic tradition of directing Western taste.
The eight works on paper by Pudlo Pudlat (1916-1992), situated on the wall behind you, offer telling landscapes of the Arctic where Euro-North American technology is now an ever present feature in the sky, on the land, and in the water. Pudlat, like Ragee and Pootoogook, was raised in a hunting camp on Baffin Island and his earliest drawings were executed on the snow walls and ice windows of igloos. As an adult, the artist settled in Cape Dorset where he started investigating the realities of postmodern life in Canada’s northern most reaches. The whimsical character of Pudlat’s imagery can be observed through his airplanes, which dive and climb in a playful manner against pink, yellow, and blue skies. These fantastic acknowledgements of the Arctic’s changed environment also serve to re-assert the importance of animals within contemporary Inuit worldviews. For example, the loons and caribou in Four Airplanes in Yellow Sky are larger in scale than the massive aircraft directly above them. Pudlat’s careful alignment of vehicles, structures, and land formations imparts a rigorous sense of symmetry upon this series of acrylic, coloured pencil, and felt pen works on paper. His focus on outboard motor boats and snowmobiles are undoubtedly inspired by the critical role such new means of transportation have come occupy in Inuit hunting and gathering practices over the past fifty years. The increased communication between peoples from the north and south is a common theme in Pudlat’s body of work, and his drawings provide an effective visual tool for the deconstruction of Western master narratives that continue to misrepresent aboriginal cultures as locked in a timeless past and without agency for the future.
Located on your extreme right, just up the short flight of stairs, are three lithographic prints. Peter Pitseolak’s (1902-1973) work in the center of the wall features a woman playing an accordion, while a man sings and dances inside an igloo. The couple’s adoption of this Western musical instrument provides further evidence of an Inuit capacity for change and resistance. Much of Pitseolak’s art, which includes over two thousand photographic works, captures a vital transitional phase in Arctic history from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Pudlat lithographs flanking the Dancer also straddle the past and present. His large sailing vessel on the left seems to recall early nineteenth-century European whaling and fishing ships which often employed Inuit crews. However, the purple airplane above the boat refers to the mid twentieth century, when air travel to the Arctic dramatically increased communication between northern and southern peoples. The federal government’s gradual assumption of unilateral authority over the north caused a group of Inuit students living in the south to form the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada in 1970. This organization asserted their political and territorial rights, just as the artists discussed thus far are agents of an autonomous cultural declaration.
Pudlat’s Airplanes Over Ice Cap, on the right of Pitseolak’s lithograph, makes a visual claim for self-hood in response to an overwhelming foreign presence. Two hunters dressed in parkas stand atop the ice cap’s peaks, and their enlarged scale as well as strategic positioning suggests a human affront to the airplanes that float in the sky. The musk ox at the bottom of the print also occupies a place of privilege, which supersedes the gigantic winged crafts. Such subtle displacements of Western social, political, and technological primacy is an ongoing process in the Arctic, as the Inuit emerge from a half century of oppression. The creation of a new Inuit geo-political entity on April 1, 1999 known as Nunavut, or “our land” in Inuktitut, bodes well for the possibility of real cross-cultural understanding in Canada.
- Curtis Joseph Collins, Associate Curator
* The title of this exhibition was inspired by a quote from Pudlo Pudlat, in a 1978 interview with Marion Jackson
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