New Voices from the New North

Qavavau Manumie, Qulaaguulik (Helicopter) [2009], lithograph on beige wove paper, 38.5 x 49.5 cm. NGC. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts

“Some people say the art is dying,” says Natar Ungalaq. “Is Inuit art dying? I don’t think so. I think it’s going to stay forever. The only way it will die is if we run out of rock.”  

The Inuit artists in New Voices from the New North, currently on view at the National Gallery, have clearly not run out of rock, nor inspiration. This exhibition of 85 works from the permanent collection presents a broad range of subject matter and media, from over a century of art-making. Tiny nineteenth-century ivory sculptures, and drawings created in the 1960s by some of the first Cape Dorset graphic artists, share the space with more contemporary works, including videos.

The first in a series of initiatives to present the Gallery’s Inuit collection with quotes from Inuit artists, Elders and youth, the exhibition explores varied perspectives on history, modern life, and the evolution of Inuit culture and society.

Entering the exhibition in the lower Inuit Galleries, which always strikes me as a quiet, contemplative space—almost a sanctuary—I encounter Jackoposie Oopakak’s breathtaking sculpture, Nunali (c. 1988–1989). This full pair of caribou antlers, intricately carved with scenes of northern life, demonstrates Oopakak’s training as a jewellery-maker. Along the full length of the antlers, he has sculpted miniature Arctic birds, polar bears and whales, as well as people hunting, cleaning skins, and travelling by dog team and kayak. Nunali has been on view in the Inuit Galleries almost permanently since it was acquired ten years ago, and has become one of my favourite works in the national collection—one I return to again and again, as if in pilgrimage.

Jackoposie Oopakak, Nunali (detail) [c. 1988–89], dark green stone, antler, sinew, bone, steel, and black inlay, 113 x 73.6 x 95.4 cm. NGC

A perfectly chosen companion piece to Nunali is Luke Airut’s Untitled (Walrus Skull and Tusks) (c. 1975). It features a walrus skull with similarly delicate carvings of Arctic life: a polar bear, an owl, and a hunter in a kayak. Like Oopakak, Airut showcases his jewellery-making training with virtuosic technique. “Each of those little pieces,” says Curatorial Assistant Heather Campbell, “could be a brooch or a pendant.” She points out the snowhouse created by the skull’s cavity. Inside are a drum dancer and his wife, singing to their child. “They are transferring their knowledge,” she explains.

On the walls of the gallery are works on paper showing both traditional and contemporary subject matter: hunting scenes, women performing daily work, mythological figures, animals, prefab houses and aircraft. Qavavau Manumie’s two lithographs, Transformation (2009) and Qulaaguulik (Helicopter) (2009), incorporate traditional forms in contemporary compositions.  Transformation, with its birds morphing into abstract shapes, suggests notions of shamanism and shape-shifting. Qulaaguulik (Helicopter) reminds us of the introduction of modernity into northern life. The warm, vivid colours of these two works are mirrored in Ningeokuluk Teevee’s Yesterday (2008), hanging beside them. A nostalgic ode to the famous Beatles song, Teevee’s lithograph is a closely cropped image of a vinyl LP playing in one of those fondly remembered portable record players.

Ningeokuluk Teevee, Yesterday (2008), lithograph on wove paper, 43.4 x 33.2 cm. NGC. Reproduced with the permission of Dorset Fine Arts

Several videos showing in the atrium offer a compelling glimpse into daily life in the North. Bruce Haulli’s film Issaittuq (Waterproof) (2007) presents a lovesick Inuk man who drowns his sorrows in drink, taking out his frustrations on a passerby. Thrown naked into a jail cell, he has nightmares about being abandoned on the tundra. Ultimately, he is able to recover, and to reconnect with the land and his culture, when the court orders him sent to a remote outpost inhabited by a wise hunter.

Natar Ungalaq’s film Artcirq (2001), created with Montréal acrobat Guillaume Saladin, tells of a group of Inuit youth in Igloolik who trained over the course of two summers with members of Montréal's National Circus School, in a project that sought to address the problem of youth suicide in the North. Their final performance blends Inuit traditions with classic elements of the Big Top.

Ungalaq, who is perhaps most famous for his lead role in the feature film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, seems to know a great deal about endurance. He is surely right that Inuit art will stay forever.

On view until the fall of 2013, New Voices from the New North is curated by Associate Curator of Indigenous Art, Christine Lalonde, with the assistance of Heather Campbell, and is presented in collaboration with the National Arts Centre’s Northern Scene.

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