Saturday, May 10, 2008

Some speculation about Inuit art

Eli Inukpaluk, Shaman with a Bird Spirit, 1967-1968. Whalebone. From the Albrecht Collection at the Heard Museum. Image found here.

Press release put out by the Wichita Art Museum.

When I went a couple of weeks ago to see Arctic Spirit, a touring exhibit of Inuit art from the Heard Museum in Phoenix, I wasn't sure what to expect. But I do know that I didn't anticipate much of what I saw and learned on that visit.

I had assumed I would see a collection of older pieces--and, there are indeed a few century-old pieces of simple scrimshaw-like pieces. Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw at the entrance to the exhibit the piece you see here, accompanied by the following introductory text on the wall next to it:

From its humble beginnings in the 1950s as a way to wean Canadian Inuit (Eskimos) off welfare, contemporary Inuit art has blossomed almost miraculously into an art form symbolizing the resilience, ingenuity and vision of a people.
The part I really couldn't get past was the introductory clause: apparently, what I was about to see was the product of a culture whose contemporary aesthetic vocabulary had little or no precedent . . . and, even more importantly, had its origins in the most-worthy goal of helping this culture become economically self-sustaining.

I really was intrigued now. But something perhaps even more surprising awaited me further on. The subject of the piece you see pictured above is a popular one in this exhibit: shamans and shape-shifters in various stages of transformation. That in and of itself wasn't so surprising, nor was it surprising to learn that most Inuit had long ago converted to Christianity. But this, from another placard in the exhibit, was:
Contemporary Inuit art has given visual representation to the spirit world for the first time. A few artists depict their own experiences, but most rely on their imaginations or the stories of elders. (My emphasis)
Coming as we do from a culture that long ago worked out a visual vocabulary for depicting the gods and figures from the Judeo-Christian tradition--so long ago, in fact, that we're forgetting how to read it--to encounter a people who only within the past 50 years began to develop such a language is indeed a fascinating thing to witness, no matter that these pieces were, most likely, not intended as offerings of devotion to the spirit world but as exercises of the imagination.

Below the fold, some comments on what (I think) all this might mean.

The piece you see at the beginning of the post is a fine summation of many tendencies I noted in the works. For one thing, though it's hard to tell from the picture, this worked whale vertebra isn't very worked at all: it shows some polishing, some minimal carving and shaping, but that's it. Just as the piece depicts the bird spirit emerging out of the shaman, so also does the artwork seem to emerge from the bone but without much changing the bone itself. Many of the other pieces were very much like this: the artists let the shape of the material have a say in the final form of the pieces, thus giving them something like the quality that "found" art has. That tendency, of course, fits very well with the pieces' subject-matter of shape-shifting figures in mid-transformation, but the sensibility at work here is something very different from that of, say, Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, in which the sculptor ignores--discards, even--the original marble's outer shape. The overall feel of these pieces is an organic, fluid one, rather than one in which the piece feels removed from or resistant to the material it's made of.

This fluidity showed up in other ways in other, more constructed pieces. One, by Noami Ity, called Life on the Land, As It Used to Be, is an approximately 6' X 5' blanket with appliqués on it. The appliqués are of men, igloos, sleds pulled by dogs, wolves, walruses, whales, and seals, not placed so as to suggest divisions between land and sea. Instead, the figures seem to float in space, as if to suggest the interrelatedness of all these entities. I wondered at this. Is the absence of a horizon somehow evocative of the shape-shifting landscape--the annual thawing and freezing of the sea and tundra--the Inuit live in? Is the lack of segregating of these figures into their "proper" spheres an implicit commentary on the Inuits' history as subsistence hunters and the fact that they would travel on the ocean as well as the land to find their prey?

These remain questions, I'm sorry to say. If there's a disappointment about this exhibit, it's in the utter lack of explanatory text accompanying the names of the pieces and their makers. I would hope the exhibition catalogue has more information, but I didn't take the time that day to look in it. Or, perhaps, contemporary Inuit art is still so new that its aesthetics are still being worked out. The exhibit did note two facts worth mentioning here, though. For one thing, the tendency used to be that artists wouldn't spend more than a few days on a piece. The pieces are far from unfinished-looking, but as a result of this tendency, as I noted earlier, the outer, original form of the material used is integrated into the piece, contributing to its overall meaning. The other note is that, as Western influences have become better-known among Inuit artists and a market for these pieces becomes larger, newer pieces tend to have a more worked feel to them. The exhibit even has a couple of traditional landscape paintings, another reflection of that influence.

It's hard for me, an obvious outsider to this culture, to know how to respond appropriately to this latter point, especially given this art's recent emergence. One risks romanticizing these people by engaging in a more-PC version of wanting to find the Noble Savage embodied in and evoked by these pieces; and I have to confess that one of my favorite pieces in the show, a recent large print titled Hundreds and Hundreds. Herds of Caribou, shows what might be a strong Escher influence. Also, it's important to remember that this art came into being in the first place with the intention of its being sold. That's true of much art, of course, but the experience of seeing pieces in museums minus their price tags allows us to put aside speculation about the market the artist was aiming for and instead concentrate more on loftier thoughts such as Meaning and Creativity and Representation. So, then, this exhibit, quite apart from showing some wonderful pieces of art made by a people from this hemisphere whom I, at least, know little about, also indirectly raises questions about art that exhibitions usually don't address. That, too, is all to the good.


Winston said...

Fascinating... I have known nothing of the Inuit except that they exist. There is one Inuit hockey player in the NHL. He is with the Nashville Predators -- Jordan Tootoo.

You used a couple of terms -- contemporary aesthetic vocabulary and visual vocabulary. By these, are you referring to the symbology, the icons, used to provide identifiable anchor points and logos for a religion or culture? Like the cross and the fish symbol used by Christians or the star of David and menorah used by Jews? Or do you mean something different?

It is interesting that the Inuit have apparently adopted Christianity, but somehow retained their reverent respect, if not worship, of the natural spirit world. How do they meld the these two diverse and at-odds ideologies?

R. Sherman said...


Of course, it makes sense that there really was not Inuit art tradition, inasmuch as their subsistence based, nomadic existence didn't provide the leisure time necessary for the creative process. That is, it's hard to carve scrimshaw when you're fighting a polar bear.

Query whether the fiat from somewhere on high to "create art" for sale makes these pieces the Inuit equivalent of Thomas Kinkade?
Does the the fact that they're native people make us unwilling/unable to see that sort of connection?

(I'm probably going to spend extra days in purgatory because of that last paragraph.)


John B. said...

Thanks to both of you for stopping by.

Winston, you asked, You used a couple of terms -- contemporary aesthetic vocabulary and visual vocabulary. By these, are you referring to the symbology, the icons, used to provide identifiable anchor points and logos for a religion or culture? Like the cross and the fish symbol used by Christians or the star of David and menorah used by Jews?

That's what I meant, yes. I should have noted, by the way, that one of the display cases held three small carvings of a god (or spirit or something--no explanation was given) named Tupilak, but they could not have been more different in form. In Renaissance painting, a Madonna is a Madonna is a Madonna: you can tell who they're supposed to be from across the room. The same is true of, say, Aztec depictions of their gods. I think this begins to answer your second question as well: I can't say the extent to which the old religion is still practiced. In a nod to Randall's comment below yours, maybe the artists make these pieces because they think we white people will just snatch this ancient-ways stuff up. The conclusion I came to, though--and who knows if it is right--is that the stories about these gods provide a sort of blank slate that artists can work with as they see fit. The making of art can be a kind of worship; whether that's the case with the Inuit, I can't say.

Randall, I have to say, given my experiences in various marketplaces in Mexico looking at "authentic," "handmade" things of various sorts, that I found myself asking the sorts of questions you asked, though by not invoking comparisons to Kinkade I was rather more charitable toward the Inuit than you. I'll just say this by way of response: As you know, I think Kinkade is a huckster of the highest order--I know I don't believe in anything he paints, and I frankly find it hard to believe he does. As for the Inuit, I don't think it's a discourtesy to them to say that they have a sense of what sells and so will make art that, they hope, appeals to their audience. But that said, I didn't feel as though I was being lied to via the pieces I saw.

Arctic Inuksuk said...

If you want to see real Inuit Art check out