Northern Perspective

Photo: Anna Stanisz, Northern Perspective talk, Art Gallery of Mississauga, December 1, 2010

By: Anna Stanisz

From a talk by Anna Stanisz at the Art Gallery of Mississauga, December 1st, 2010, in conjunction with the AGM’s current Inuit sculpture exhibit, Abraham Anghik Ruben: Shaman’s Dreams.

Converging Perspectives

The resounding success of Inuit art in the 1950s and 1960s was possible thanks to the Modernist artistic revolution, which allowed a new appreciation of the simple, abstracted forms engrained in the Inuit visual tradition. This artistic appreciation paired with a romanticized vision of the North and the appealing “otherness” of Inuit narrative helped establish a Canadian and then international Inuit art market and thus inform the future of northern communities such as West Baffin’s Cape Dorset.

However, while the Modernist movement formed as a direct reaction to the four hundred years long dominance of artistic realism, Inuit artists’ distinctive spatial compositions were rooted in their cultural interaction with the land.

Cartographic Encounters

Unlike Europeans, the Inuit didn’t produce permanent maps for their own use since they have recognized the futility of such an enterprise. They had a profound understanding of the dynamic nature of the northern environment. In accordance with the traditional Inuit cosmology, the land was a constantly shifting entity possessed by the spirit of Inua, an all-pervading life force. What was a solid ground in the winter became a treacherous swamp in the spring time. Confining the land to a fixed visual representation was clearly impractical in a continuously changing environment. Therefore, the Inuit travellers developed a special navigation system based on a memorized network of orientation points, which location they enhanced by stone structures called inuksuit.

Inuit Land Representation

Echoing their mapping practices, the early Inuit graphic works concentrated on connectivity between visual parts rather then faithful recordings of distance, angles or shapes. Surroundings are depicted only if they played a direct role in the scene: e.g. a rock hiding the hunter etc. The scale of representation can be exaggerated to emphasize hierarchy of importance.

Pudlo Pudlat, Ikkutut (Embarking on a Long Journey) 1987 [details below]
A very good example of this approach is Pudlo Pudlat’s drawing for a well known print Ikkutut (Embarking on a Long Journey), 1986-87 (pictured above). In this drawing currently preserved at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection (in the long term loan from the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative), a line of walking travellers is echoed in the top part of the composition by a scene of a dog’s encounter with a caribou feeding on a patch of grass. This pictorial vignette, identifying caribou grazing grounds, seems logical despite being located outside of the physical space determined by the travellers.

Mapping the Change

In the last fifty years of powerful social and political changes, the Inuit sense of place and space has been irrevocably altered. The renegotiation of the relationship to the land became the heart of this transition and was symbolically reaffirmed in the creation of the new territory of Nunavut ten years ago.

Today, the awareness of the world beyond the Arctic makes possible a new perception of the North within a wider global perspective. Although the themes explored by contemporary Cape Dorset artists are undeniably rooted in the reality of their own community, they transcend the geographical designation and address the anxiety and concerns familiar to the artistic communities across the world.

Abraham Anghik Ruben: Shaman’s Dreams is on at the Art Gallery of Mississauga until December 23rd. Visit our website for more details.

Image Credit:
Pudlo Pudlat  1916 – 1992
Ikkutut (Embarking on a Long Journey) 1987, stonecut and stencil on paper, 46.4 x 73.2 cm
Collection of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative Ltd., on loan to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection CDP.24.166.1
Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts

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