Some Thoughts on Inuit Art 2002

October 23, 2010

Geographic situation of inquiry into the Inuit art knowledge community

The geographic space encompassed by this stage in my research project stretches north and south to include northern hinterlands and southern heartlands. The producers of Inuit art reside mainly in hamlets that sparsely dot the landscapes of Labrador, Nunavik, Nunavut and the Western Arctic. There are some organizations, institutions and activities in the North that produce and disseminate narratives that contribute to the Inuit art knowledge community. In the North, oral presentations, museum exhibitions, Nunavut Arctic College, commercial dealers produce information, documentation that informs that Inuit art knowledge community. Some researchers communicate with Inuit artists by telephone, email and through other distance communications. Others travel to northern hamlets to gather ‘data’ for theses, dissertations, reports and programs. However, most published material is produced, disseminated and consumed by and for outsiders in the south.

Dismantling the exotic myth of the North: The north as a relevant concept. Iqaluit is not really as isolated, as cold, as small as one might expect!

Iqaluit is only a three hour flight from Ottawa on a comfortable, First Air jet, with excellent service! As we travel north the aerial view reveals a rumpled snow blanket that covered everything. It was no longer white, but soft pinks and blues with touches of yellow where the late afternoon sun caught the snow drifts and snow‑covered hills. Hudson Strait was a flat, frozen white mass. Cliffs along the shore cast long, blue shadows like fingers stretching towards Baffin Island. Farther out over the straight I could see patches of openings in the ice where clear water was visible. As we approached Iqaluit, the landscape changed. Coastal winds from the eastern shore seemed to scrape the soft surface snow away revealing hard icy or rocky surfaces below. Nearer the town, antennas and satellite dishes, these contemporary inukshualuk, dotted the hills surrounding the airfield. As we landed I couldn’t tell where the warehouses, hangars and airport buildings ended and Iqaluit itself began. The architecture of many of the buildings was functional, not aesthetic,  more like army barracks that it used to host, than a capital city.

The descent into Iqaluit reveals a tiny capital spread out along four miles of Koosejee Inlet.  In spite of its relatively small population of seven thousand, the boom in population growth propelled by its status as Canada’s newest capital city, has provoked a housing crisis unparalleled in Canada. Today curved lines of houses, supported  on stilt‑like piles buried in the permafrost, trace irregular paths up the hills that surround the Inlet. Many homes and apartments, designed as single family dwellings, have been informally transformed to accommodate family members, friends and paying boarders. Even professionals open extra rooms to boarders who share scant housing.

The homes perched at the top of these hills enjoy a panoramic view of the islands in the Inlet and the Peninsula across the water.  These sections of town called Tundra Valley and the Road to Nowhere provide the best views of the surrounding area and are not surprisingly the area Iqaluitmiut identify as upper class.  Except in these newer areas, exclusive use of private property seems to be an ambiguous concept. In the areas inhabited by the lower classes, such as the Beaches, informal trails tightly encircle almost every home, providing bikes, snowmobiles and walkers with limitless shortcuts and making landscape and fence‑building a delicate negotiation.

Frobisher Bay: a colonialist not‑so‑distant past

Frobisher Bay was a highly segregated community. Apex to the east of town was the Inuit residential area. Only three decades ago young Inuit children walked the three miles to school from their homes in Apex to the elementary school in Iqaluit even in temperatures of ‑40 degrees! A contemporary northern myth affirms that the colonialism in the north was relatively benign. In reality Inuit have been cast into the minority status in Nunavut. In every social institution, Inuit values have been replaced by the dominant western value‑system.  This does not mean that the majority of Inuit have adopted these values. However, the modus operandi of northern institutions reflect the dominant values of the southern market economy. Education in the North does not respond to the real needs of the Inuit in the North. This leads to a cognitive and learning gap with widespread consequences. There is an assumption that there is only one way of perceiving progress and growth. It is more reflection of a corporate vision than an Inuit vision.

Iqaluit, Nunavut:

It is a desert region surrounded by water. Strong sunlight has become a concern. It is narrated as an exotic, isolated, pristine, northern frontier. The Road to Nowhere is officially marked on maps of Iqaluit and included on taxi tours of this northern capital. The self-mocking de-locational indicator  ‘nowhere’ is turned on its head becoming the Road to Everywhere, when viewed from the standpoint of a circumpolar map.  In reality Iqaluit is a hub of northern activities with a nonstop flow of expert outsiders, government workers, consultants, travelers, tourists and people on transit to other northern communities.

Many hamlets are still ninety percent Inuit. However, both Iqaluit and Cambridge Bay, are composed of 30% non‑Inuit. Iqaluit, Nunavut,  is a complex community governed by three layers of government. Indigenous peoples worldwide are watching Nunavut and the unfolding of this experiment in indigenous governance and sovereignty.  At the same time, deeply entrenched government bureaucracies challenge more equitable social change with paralyzing, counter productive responses.

There is an epidermic respect paid to the role of IQ in the Nunavut government. But the unwritten whispers in the hallways and over coffee call for a return of the ‘corporate dinosaurs,’ with quick, decisive action and a ‘firmer grip on reality.’ They question if there is a specific way of knowing that is IQ. They confide in each other the belief that the knowledge of the Inuit elders is outdated. The work of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, in educating and integrating IQ into everyday government operations, is a challenging, uphill struggle.  Their job is not only to convince the outside world of the validity of IQ in the contemporary northern landscape. They must also quell the murmurs that abound within the walls of Nunavut government offices. These myths that IQ is outdated, are reinforced by an overwhelming group think that maintains the status quo.

Grounding through sound: A Polyglot Community

In Iqaluit everyday life unfolds in a sound‑scape of three accent‑textured languages, Inuktitut, English and French.  Social classes span language and cultural lines. There are distinct social classes evident within the Inuit community.

Hearing diversity

Accents in three languages reveal newcomers geographic origins. Among Inuit, the varying levels of mastery of Inuktitut and English, flavoured with distinct accents in Inuktitut from smaller hamlets, separate a small community into even smaller nodes. English is lightened by the Inuit, Newfoundland, Maritime, Irish and Finnish accents. French is heard everywhere, in coffee shops, restaurants and stores, and frequently, in taxis, as most cab drivers are recruited in Quebec. It is ironic that Environment Canada’s weather channel which provides blizzard warnings was recently made available in French as well as English. It is not yet available in Inuktitut.

On alienation and belonging in a complex society

Iqaluit is not a homogenous community. Inuit now residing in Iqaluit come from communities across the north. These ‘outsiders’ may feel a sense of alienation and ‘otherness’ that plays out in schoolyard bullying, adult shunning, gossip and feelings of homesickness. Acquiring the status of ‘belonging’ in Iqaluit can be a lengthy process. One can remain there as a ‘tourist’ and outsider for several years before being recognized as a community member, insider or northerner.

The politics of naming

There are few street names. Every building is identified by a number that is not necessarily in numerical order. Taxi drivers learn them all. For some Iqaluit residents the concept of street names is a southern importation that is just another irritating example of the politics of naming.

The Inuit art market: producers, Co‑ops, dealers, consumers

The origin of northern co‑ops is linked to the Inuit art boom of the 1960’s. In a number of northern communities, co‑op’s continue to purchase carvings and drawings from local artists.

The changing of the guard

Terry Ryan remained as Co‑op manager in Cape Dorset for over three decades. His continuous presence and his quiet passion for Inuit art, provided a partnership with Inuit artists that helped the West Baffin Print Shop and Co‑op to flourish.

Arctic Co‑operatives: Groceries, snow machines, fuel, furniture

Contemporary Co‑Op managers are more likely to be interested in the more lucrative and less sensitive and demanding markets in commodities such as fuel, groceries, furnishings, etc. and less committed to Inuit art as an integral part of the Co‑op organization. Inuit artists, like any other artist, craftsmen or small businessmen, may not always be easy to work with!

Art‑while‑you‑wait, tourists and cruise ships

In some cases dealers, local customers and tourist‑collectors, request very specific subjects. Tourists off the cruise ships who arrive for very brief visits in small hamlets, have very specific ideas of what they want to purchase. They will make specific requests, for example for Sedna carvings or polar bears. In the case of dealers they may also request specific forms and poses for example in the shape of the wings of a bird or the angle of the neck of a bird.

Art dealers, commercial galleries and stables of artists

Art dealers and commercial galleries operate by maintaining close working relationships with specific artists. In the best arrangements, both dealers and artists benefit. The price of a work of art is split with about 60% going to the dealer and 40% to the artist. The high cost of maintaining expensive commercial gallery spaces, art show openings, invitations, on‑going press coverage, advertisements, etc. and the risk that the artist’s work might not sell, is compensated in the high commission the dealer receives.  In some cases, commercial galleries produce exhibition catalogues and information about the artist’s life, career and individual works of art. The prestige of the artist, and therefore the value of her/his work, is increased by this association with reliable, recognized professional art dealers. It provides the artist with a sense of security and a focus for production. Galleries demand a certain number of works from the artists in their stables.

Shopping centre‑style commercial art galleries

Galleries and dealers vary. There are the shopping centre‑style commercial galleries whose focus is purely commercial. These galleries insist on quantity and a certain predictable uniformity in the artist’s production. Mechanically produced reproductions are sold at prices similar to limited edition prints.

Fine Art galleries

Fine Art galleries attempt to varying degrees to diffuse works of art that contribute to some extent to the fresh and original. They are more comfortable with a continuity in style that evolves and changes rather than abruptly taking on completely new paths. The focus is still on sales. In some of these galleries, the framing is arranged by the gallery but the artists pay for the frames of unsold works. Frames for a medium‑sized art work can be as much as $500.

Art dealers and stables of Inuit artists

Some art dealers live and work from a northern base. Much like southern galleries, they maintain a stable of artists whose work they regularly purchase. They provide stone and tools. The size and hardness of the stone impacts on the size and nature of the carving.

The artists who are part of a stable, may feel that the price they are receiving is unacceptably low. In one case L. E. reported selling a piece for $200 that was sold almost immediately to a European collector for $700. They prefer to sell directly.

Inuit art on the menu and on the run

To the frustration of the professional art dealers and the delight of Inuit artists, the parallel market of direct sales is quite lucrative. Inuit artists are among the only Canadian artists who can produce and sell work on the same day. Artists sell their work from table to table in hotel restaurants, in lobbies of public buildings, at workplaces and/or door‑to‑door in Iqaluit, often through the intermediary of relatives and friends. These purchases which routinely sell for hundreds of dollars, are still a fraction of the cost of one of these works in a southern gallery.

Triage: Fine Art, gift or souvenir?

In the co‑op’s there is a system of subjective but informed triage. Certain works are sent to the more prestigious galleries, such as Dorset Fine Arts and southern auctions organized by Arctic Producers. There public and commercial galleries as well as individual collectors purchase the most expensive and the most valued works by the most highly recognized artists. Seasoned collectors also chose reliable galleries such as the Marion Scott in Vancouver, when making their purchases of Inuit art.  Even before carvings leave the North, certain works have been chosen for the larger market aimed at the tourist‑collector and often destined for gifts and souvenir shops. Prices for the carvings vary from $50 to $200. Artists, whose sustained production, has captured the attention of collectors, produce work that is sold in gallery settings for over $1000. Wall‑hangings average $800 for a large‑sized tapestry. Inuit prints routinely sell for $250 ‑ $500.

Myths and delusions: Inuit artists and their dealers

On the part of both management and artist, there seems to be little understanding of the larger workings of the world of art in which a sculpture or print can become an investment with the potential of increased value through time.

Art collectors: Motivations and standards for acquisition: the passionate collector, art as sound investment, the museum piece, the ideal gift for your Japanese business partner

Inuit art collectors: Inuit art is appreciated at home, in Nunavut.

Original Inuit art works now enhance the living spaces of private homes and public places in Iqaluit. Private collectors hold pieces that would be the envy of curators of public collections. The Nunavut Legislative Building takes pride in the tasteful exhibition and rotation of fine examples of contemporary Inuit art. Hotels and restaurants highlight prints, wall‑hangings and sculptures. The streets of Iqaluit are filled with walking art. Outer clothing, custom‑made by skilled textile artists in Iqaluit, reflects a heightened sense of design, innovation and creativity. Finely crafted silver, ivory, baleen and antler miniature works of art in the form of jewelry are sold in stores, on the streets, worn and admired.

Inuit art easier to purchase on the street than in a gallery in Iqaluit

Unfortunately, in Iqaluit there is no one accessible place where quality Inuit art can be purchased. There are two commercial galleries where the lack of interest of the staff perfectly mirrors the lack‑lustre collection of works for sale. There is one dealer who will show works by appointment. Nunavut Arctic College Arts and Crafts have begun a monthly sale which seems to be quite successful. Artists bring their own work to sell.

The consumers of Inuit art objects are part of a large international community with galleries in France, Germany, Belgium, the United States and Canada. There are a number of small but respected centres of teaching, learning and research with a focus on Inuit art.

The passionate collector

The passionate art collector who purchases works of art based on a resonance between the work and himself/herself is a gift to the art community. Public collections have been enhanced by inheritance of these collections intact.

The collector as investor

Collectors interested in purchasing a work that is not only pleasing to them, but potentially a sound art investment, depend on information about the market, the artist, the artist’s oeuvres gleaned from art dealers, exhibitions, art books and travel.

The dream of a lucrative investment

The highest purchase price for an Inuit print was over $50, 000.  The 1967 print Enchanted Owl by Kenojuak, heralded an era described by some as the golden age of Inuit art. Kenojuak’s prolific and unbroken career as a gifted artist spans three decades and has been well‑documented in film as well as in prized art books. Collectors yearn for the collectible that may one day soar in value. An artist’s death may be greeted with pleasure by dealers  and collectors whose collections increase in value as the rarity of the objects increased.

Inuit artists are aware of the discrepancy between the price received at the time of the initial sale and the price of certain works of art through appreciation.

Artists are dismayed that the work sold in the early years for a pittance is worth more than they would make in a year. There is a sense of mistrust between artist and dealer. The dealer may feel artists are not sufficiently appreciative of the art market and the value of ongoing promotion in which they are constantly involved. The artist feels he/she is being underpaid for their work. The subject matter of Inuit art work reflects an intense symbiotic relationship to the northern ecosystem. Artists take pleasure in discussing the tools with which they work, the choice of stones, the organization of their studios (if they are fortunate enough to have them), details of the geographic location and seasonal attributes, which inspired a particular work. But the actual working conditions under which the Inuit artist works, reflects a market mentality. They are also willing to discuss these conditions which embitter some artists and lead to mistrust of the Inuit art system.

Acquisition policies for public collections

Public museums and galleries, such as the National Gallery of Canada, have stringent policies for acquisitions. Collections are built around themes such as Early Canadian art, First Nations art, Modern Canadian art and Inuit art. Within each of these categories curators attempt to acquire works that reveal pivotal aspects of the theme around which the collection has been built. Similarly to academic work, the question is asked, “What has this artist accomplished and/or does this work represent that is new, original, to the field, that is new knowledge?” Within these categories specific artists are selected for a more in‑depth representation.

Canada’s professional visual artists: managing the contemporary career

Artists, whose works are finally collected by the National Gallery, have become part of the larger conversation about art, by actively producing and exhibiting in provincial, national and international venues. Their work is inserted into contemporary discourse in academia, in art reviews, in art journals. They have exhibited in juried exhibitions.

The role of documentation in the career of the contemporary visual artist

Usually contemporary artists substantiate their claim to professional artist status through a thorough documentation of their work. Applications for grants and submissions for exhibitions and competitions require text‑based and visual documentation. Slides of works are produced and stored. Press books are maintained. The artist’s curriculum vitae is kept up to date. Individual curators research the artist’s biography, including exhibition career, publications. The concern is not with the marketability of the work of art as much as the contribution to the ‘knowledge’ community in which the artist is working. Is the artist contributing to the production of new knowledge about art by providing a fresh idea or object that stimulates a fresh, innovative, original way of thinking, a new way of seeing, perceiving, reading and/or relating to his/her environment?

The profile of professional contemporary visual artists

Numerous artists graduate from art schools without a motivation to enter the commercial art market. The goal is to produce original works of art that contribute to a larger, more enduring conversation about art, a discourse that is tied intricately to theory, literature, philosophy… In reputable art schools, students study theory as much as techniques. Aspiring artists are challenged to think as artists not merely to produce works that look like art. These artists subsist by teaching art, working at a job that is not‑related to the arts, maintaining a studio production, applying for exhibition and project grants, and working as part of artists’ co‑operatives and/or alternative galleries. Visual artists are among the lowest wage earners in the country.

Why produce art?

It is astounding to witness the results of the Arctic Youth Arts Initiative, an ambitious project to bring painting into the lives of Inuit. Beth McKenty has been going into local schools and community centres in Iqaluit and Clyde River with good quality paints and paper in minute quantities. Using postcard size papers she encourages children, adults and elders to paint what they feel. Invariably the results are a visual feast. These artists can describe, using kitchen‑table poetry, complex feelings and imaginary worlds they inhabit or that inhabit them. They are no different from any art activity undertaken by any group where barriers to creativity have not yet been erected. The painting becomes addictive with groups requesting again and again for a repeat of the activity.

Art in schools in Iqaluit

Yet in Iqaluit, except for this volunteer initiative,  art is not actively encouraged in grade schools or high school. Drum dancing is being taught in one fortunate school where a well‑respected Inuit, knowledgeable in traditional ways, actively seeks to incorporate Inuit culture into the curriculum.

The profile of contemporary Inuit artists

While there are exceptions, many Inuit artists seem to be uni‑lingual Inuktitut speakers. This makes it more challenging for researchers who wish to interview the artists. The activity of carving is not considered as a career but as a way of making money. There is virtually no difference between the production of skilled craftswomen who design and sew sealskin kamiks, mittens, hats and jackets. The cost of living in Iqaluit is artificially high.  One of the local artists who was brought up by two very well‑known Cape Dorset artists, lived at the homeless shelter next door to where I was living. Everyday he worked outside in temperatures that ranged from ‑30 to 0 degrees. He sat on a piece of plywood and worked non‑stop for hours using stone provided by his art dealer, David. I could hear the buzz of power tools, and see him carving, sanding and polishing. I bought a couple of pieces that I later realized were not that good. I had the impression that his skill far outweighed the effort he made in these pieces. I looked up his name on the Internet. He was there with photos of his art work and a description of an exhibition in France!

The boom, government salaries and inflated prices

Federal and Nunavut public servants earn salaries two and three times what they could anticipate in southern urban centres. These employees also enjoy extended vacations in the south with in some cases, several round trips tickets a year. They are able to purchase the more expensive items while in the south and further cut the cost of living in the north. Federal and Nunavut governments provide housing for their employees and pay inflated prices for rents. For those who do not qualify for housing, the cost of rental is about twice the cost of a major urban centre. A house rents for $2500 a month, a room in a house for $500‑$1,000. The high costs are reflected in every purchase from clothing to food. Yet a single person on Social Assistance in the north collects less than $400 a month.

L’art, pourquoi faire?

Creating works of art for personal fulfillment, as a means of authentic expression, to enhance understanding of contemporary theories, to

Narrating Inuit art: Who is the intended audience?

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