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Our Land: Contemporary Art from the Arctic

Hood Quarterly, spring 2007

Nunavut—“our land” in Inuktitut, the Inuit language—is the region of Canada that encompasses the area around Hudson Bay, west of Greenland. It was created in 1999 as part of a land claim settlement with the Canadian government by the region’s native people, who call themselves Inuit, “the people.” This remarkable transfer of land, the first in Canada in over fifty years, separated Nunavut from the Northwest Territories. Our Land includes sculptures, prints, textiles, photography, video, and sound installations created in Nunavut over the past half century, a period of profound change and burgeoning artistic and cultural awareness and pride among the Inuit there.

Traditional materials such as stone, antlers, and animal skins are transformed into bold expressions of the inner and outer worlds of the Inuit, while the relatively recent mid-twentieth-century introduction of printmaking led to another vital Inuit artistic medium. In addition, filmmaking has attracted Inuit talent, and its first major practitioner, Zacharias Kunuk, won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2001 for his feature-length film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner). Kunuk’s work is represented in Our Land through a thirteen-part video on four screens detailing the life of a fictitious Nunavut family in 1945. The exhibition Our Land is presented in three sections: “Being,” “Family,” and “Community.” Together they engage themes of cosmology, place, season, time, and gathering, which provide many Inuit artists with their subjects. The exhibition’s labels in turn present artists’ and Inuit elders’ thoughts about life and art in Nunavut. A brief selection here will introduce the show.

BEING

The greatest peril of life lies in the fact that human food consists entirely of souls.
Buster Kailek, Inuit Elder 

Pudlo Pudlat (1916–1992, Cape Dorset) is known for his highly stylized landscapes and his consistent sense of design, color, and perspective. He is also known for the sense of humor in his works, as is evident in Loons among Muskox. In 1990, the National Gallery of Canada mounted a retrospective of Pudlat’s prints and drawings, making him the first Inuit artist to receive such recognition from a major eastern Canadian museum.

FAMILY

Children are full of life; they never want to sleep. Only a song or monotonous words can make them quiet down so that at last they fall asleep. That is why mothers and grandmothers always put little children to sleep with tales. It is from them we all have our knowledge, for children never forget.
Naalungiaq, Inuit Elder

With the 1962 closing of the North Rankin Nickel Mines, which had, in effect, created the community of Rankin Inlet, many families were left without an income. In 1963 the government set up an innovative ceramics workshop to train artists in that medium as well as carving and needlework. Workshop member Joseph Patterk (born 1912, Rankin Inlet) became a recognized artist in only three years through objects such as Legend of the Family Who Traveled on a Wild Goose. Although the Rankin Inlet ceramics workshop was closed in 1977, it has recently been revived through the efforts of a local gallery.

COMMUNITY

The people that thought of holding a qaggiq [community snow house for feasting and dancing] would be the ones that built it. . . . After they were satisfied that it was ready for occupancy they would call out ‘Qaggiavuut’; that was the invitation.
George Agiaq Kappianaq, Inuit Elder 

The artists of Baker Lake are particularly known for their extraordinary textile arts. Jessie Oonark, whose work is represented in Our Land, was responsible for developing the arts program at Baker Lake during the 1960s and 1970s. Her influence on younger artists including Fanny Algaalaga-Avatituq (born 1950, Baker Lake) is evident in their use of bold colors and line. Algaalaga-Avatituq captures a sense of the greatness and diversity of her community in this tapestry, an art form regarded by many Baker Lake artists as an essential tool for preserving the history and stories of the area.

Our Land is on view at the Hood Museum of Art from March 27 through May 20. It was organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, and the Government of Nunavut, Canada. Its presentation at the Hood was generously funded by the Philip Fowler 1927 Memorial Fund and the William Chase Grant 1919 Memorial Fund. The information in the exhibition is presented in English and in the syllabic version of Inuktitut, the Inuit language. An illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

 

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