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Kenojuak Ashevak, Summer Owl, 1975
Image ©Dennos Museum Center, Northwestern Michigan College

Contemporary Inuit Art

This exhibition narrates a way of life – kept alive only through oral histories given by the last generations of the Inuit, a nomadic and deeply spiritual culture, before stepping into the modern world.

The Inuit (also referred to as “Eskimos”) migrated over the Bering Land Bridge from Asia to present-day Alaska, across the Canadian Arctic to the easternmost point of Greenland. Living in the harsh and unforgiving climate of the Arctic regions required strength, stamina, ingenuity and a spiritual connection with nature that allowed the Inuit to co-exist harmoniously with their environment. The Inuit lived peacefully like this for thousands of years until the Canadian Government instituted a policy encouraging them to relocate to permanent settlements in 1950.  The move required the Inuit to adapt to a Western way of life and monetary system.

Artist James Houston has been credited for assisting the Inuit in this transition.  Houston first visited the Arctic in 1948. While there, he traded some of his sketches for small carvings. Struck by the aesthetic clarity of the minimalist, carved forms, Houston requested from the Canadian Handicrafts Guild assistance in purchasing carvings in order to mount an exhibition in Montreal. The exhibition was so successful that Houston returned to the Arctic as a representative of the Guild stationed in Cape Dorset on Baffin Island. By 1956, the Canadian government put Houston in charge of lending support to the Inuit in further developing and promoting their existing art forms of stone carving and needlework. It is against this backdrop that the contemporary period of Inuit Art emerged.

The 80 works in this exhibition present a survey of Inuit stone-cut, stencil, lithographic prints and sculptures from the late 1950s to the present. Selected from more than 1000 objects in the Dennos Museum Center’s permanent collection, the exhibition features artists from numerous communities within six Canadian Arctic regions and reveals the vision, breadth and scope of contemporary Inuit Art through such first generation masters as Atchealak, Kenojuak, Parr and Saila, as well as their successors.

The exhibition includes beautiful traditional whalebone carvings depicting the Inuit and the wildlife that sustained them, an amazing collection of stone-cut prints, sealskin stencils and lithographs, and contemporary art forms the Inuit learned from James Houston. Although contemporary, these works keep alive old traditions and beliefs of the Inuit. What was once known only through oral tradition is now accessible through visual imagery of unique prints and sculptures, some of which look as though they could have been carved thousands of years ago.


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