Nunavut has more artists, per capita, than any other place in the world!
For a historically nomadic hunter-gatherer society, which spread itself thinly across the circumpolar world from Siberia to Greenland, surviving and subsisting for untold centuries in one of the harshest environments on the planet, the vital cultural importance of art to the Inuit people is extraordinary. Visitors to Nunavut are forever impressed by the ingenuity and artistic creativity of the Inuit.
The quality and sheer beauty of Inuit artworks, handicrafts and articles of masterfully hand sewn clothing is obvious to anybody at first inspection, but to fully appreciate the value of such work it is important to also have an understanding of traditional Inuit culture and the deep-rooted sources of Inuit artistic inspiration.
Inuit culture includes their language, traditions, beliefs, music, art, handicrafts, foods, clothing, implements, technologies and story. The kayak, the ulu knife, the igloo and the inuksuk are distinctive examples. Dog sleds are still popular in Nunavut, but snowmobiles are more common. The rifle has replaced the bow and arrow, but to the Inuit way of seeing things, this is still ‘traditional’ because it's logical and practical. From the cultural perspective of a hunting and fishing people, using GPS to find one's way back home is as basic as replacing stone arrowheads with high-calibre rifle ammunition. Likewise, in music, the traditional sounds of throat-singing are sometimes now mixed to hip hop beats. Storytelling, which is a traditional performance art form, nowadays also includes the innovative work of Inuit filmmakers. The Inuit culture that people will experience when visiting Nunavut today is both vibrant and dynamic. It is an ancient, living culture.
The English word ‘culture’ has over 160 meanings, which can sometimes be confusing. There is no such word in Inuktitut. Instead, the Inuit use the term ‘illiqusiq’ which means ‘the way it is done’ — encompassing all aspects of the Inuit way of life.
Having always existed in harmony and interdependence with the natural world, the Inuit worldview is shaped by the respect they have for the land, the sea, the animals, the plants and the forces of nature. Inuit leaders, elders, parents and teachers strive to preserve this harmonious balance for future generations. No longer a nomadic people, yet still very much a people of their land, the Inuit of Nunavut proudly contribute their creative arts, crafts, clothing, wisdom and cultural values to the enrichment and delight of the rest of the world.
At the core of Inuit artistic inspiration is the family. Amongst Inuit, this is often an extended family, which naturally becomes part of the greater community. Inuit cherish their youth and their elders, respecting very specific roles and responsibilities that they place upon themselves at each stage of life. Traditional Inuit social values include sharing the bounty of a successful hunt with others, always looking after the poor and behaving in a more collective, rather than a selfishly individual way. Family is often a major theme in Inuit carvings and prints. Beautifully handmade dolls, toys, crafts and distinctive articles of clothing produced for children, women and men demonstrate the inspirational role of Inuit family life.
Inuit art refers to all artworks and handicrafts produced by Inuit. Historically the preferred artistic medium was walrus ivory, but since the establishment of southern markets for Inuit art in 1945, prints, ceramics and figurative works carved in relatively soft stone such as soapstone and serpentine have become more popular.
Ancient Nunavut Art
Nunavut has supported a continuous indigenous population for over 4,000 years.
- Paleo-Eskimo Culture: 2500 BC to 1500 BC
- Pre-Dorset Culture ('Saqqaq'): 2500 BC to 500 BC
- Dorset Culture ('Tuniit' or 'Sivullirmiut'): 500 BC to 1500 AD
- Thule Culture (Proto-Inuit): 1000 AD to 1600 AD
- Inuit Culture (Eskimo): 1600 AD to present-day
The Paleo-Eskimo culture in Nunavut developed around 2500 BC. Very little remains of them, so little is known about their artwork, with only a few preserved artifacts carved in ivory. Descendents of these people include the Pre-Dorset and Dorset cultures.
The Dorset produced a significant amount of figurative art in walrus ivory, whalebone, caribou antler and stone. Subjects included birds, bears, walruses, seals, human figures and masks. The Dorset depicted 'flying bears' in ivory with incised lines indicating their skeletons. These items possessed magical significance to the Dorset; they were worn as amulets and used in shamanistic rituals.
Beginning around 1000 AD, Thule people migrated into Nunavut, displacing the earlier Dorset inhabitants. Thule artwork included mostly utilitarian objects such as combs, buttons, needle cases, cooking pots, spears and harpoons, with ornamental graphic decorations incised upon them to make these everyday objects more personalized. The Thule were the direct ancestors of the Inuit.
The Renaissance of Inuit Art
Traditional Inuit utensils, clothing, tools and weapons were all skillfully made by hand from natural materials such as stone, bone, ivory, antler and animal hides. As a nomadic hunter-gatherer people, the Inuit could take very little else with them besides their tools and everyday belongings, but non-utilitarian art objects were also made. Carved in miniature so that they could be easily carried around or worn, these beautiful items included delicate earrings, combs, dolls, amulets, dance masks, plus tiny figurines that were used when telling legends and recounting Inuit oral history.
Beginning in the late 1500s, the Inuit began to barter with visiting European and American whalers for tea, sugar, flour, rifles and ammunition. Inuit artworks that had previously only been made as tools or shamanic amulets, including carvings of animals and family scenes, became trading commodities. Inuit artists began producing ivory carvings specifically for this trade, including cribbage boards and scrimshaw works made of walrus and narwhal tusks.
Inuit artwork has evolved rapidly and dramatically ever since, in both size and range of media, particularly since 1945 when the Inuit of Nunavut began settling into permanent communities. The Government of Canada has encouraged the carving industry and the Inuit have also mastered the fine arts of printmaking and ceramics.
Perhaps the most internationally recognized form of Inuit visual art is carving in stone, ivory, antler and bone. These carvings range in size from intricate, exquisitely delicate works to huge masterpiece carvings more appropriately called sculptures. The delightful forms of mythical figures like the sea goddess Sedna, marine mammals such as narwhal and walrus, arctic birds, hunters, mothers and children, plus many forms of dancing, sleeping, prowling polar bears are made by very talented Inuit artists living all across the territory. Some of these highly stylistic masterworks are justifiably very expensive to acquire, but lucky visitors to Nunavut can often meet the artists personally and learn what has inspired them.
Inuit carving is an ancient art form that often achieves incredibly modern results of tremendous value. The work varies by region. The hard stone used in Arviat and Baker Lake inspires more abstract art, while Kimmirut is famous for its walrus ivory carving and scrimshaw work. Notable galleries to visit are located in Cape Dorset, Iqaluit and Rankin Inlet, which is also the home of Nunavut's best ceramic artists.
The community of Cape Dorset is world-famous for the quality of its printmaking. Distinctive Inuit prints are made in many parts of Nunavut, but some of the very best, gracing the homes of world leaders and the art galleries of numerous nations, come from this small community in southwestern Baffin Island. Other communities of particular distinction for their printmakers and weavers include Baker Lake, Pangnirtung and Pond Inlet.
Everywhere in Nunavut you will see mothers carrying their infant children in the hood of their ‘amauti’ — a specialized Inuit parka designed for just such purpose. For survival in the harsh arctic, while Inuit men mastered the design of specialized hunting tools, Inuit women mastered all the local materials and forms of their traditional clothing. Inuit garments, from sealskin boots to polar bear skin leggings, are still beautifully handmade in Nunavut today. In addition, you will find incredible Inuit beadwork, plus intricately worked bone, stone, talon, claw, ivory and metal jewellery.