Judas Ullulaq, "Hunter Scolding Dog with Stolen Fish," 1982
Judas Ullulaq, "Hunter Scolding Dog with Stolen Fish," 1982, stone, caribou bone and sinew, 13.6" x 18.1" x 6.5"
After the establishment of Nunavut in 1999, ownership of art from eastern regions of the Arctic was transferred to the new territory. But Nunavut didn’t have a facility to store or display the work, so much of the collection languished in storage at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife.
But under a recent five-year loan agreement with the Nunavut government, nearly 8,000 works have been shipped to the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Gallery staff travelled to Yellowknife earlier this year to pack six trucks with prints, drawings, carvings, ceramics, textiles and other works. The collection is mostly contemporary art, but also includes some pieces created prior to 1949 and even a few prehistoric items. When the work arrived in Winnipeg, Darlene Coward Wight, the gallery’s curator of Inuit art, compared it to “Christmas for a curator.”
Now, Christmas is coming for other Winnipeggers as the gallery exhibits works from the Nunavut collection in Our Land: Contemporary Art from the Arctic from Oct. 1 to April 9.
Fanny Algaalaga Avatituq, Weaving, ca 1980
Fanny Algaalaga Avatituq, Weaving, ca 1980, wool and embroidery thread
Highlights are too many to note, but Coward Wight mentions the collection contains more than 600 extraordinary wall hangings, many from the Baker Lake area. A weaving by Fanny Algaalaga Avatituq, made with wool and embroidery thread around 1980, is a garden of riotous colours and haphazard pathways with foliage and wildlife. A stone and caribou bone sculpture by the late Judas Ullulaq uses a playful imbalance of forms to describe the humorous struggle between man and dog. The piece is titled Hunter Scolding Dog with Stolen Fish.
Works from the Nunavut collection travelled occasionally in the past. In 2004, for instance, 50 pieces were shipped to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, for the first major exhibition of contemporary art from Nunavut. Many of the same pieces are showing in Winnipeg for what is essentially another iteration of that show. The title, Our Land, is the translation of the Inuktitut word, Nunavut.
As part of the agreement with Nunavut, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which is building a $60-million Inuit Art Centre to house its collection of some 13,000 works, opened a new retail space in June to promote and sell Inuit art at The Forks, a popular tourism area. The outlet offers jewelry and other crafts similar to those at the downtown gift shop.
Meanwhile, work from the Nunavut collection will be circulated, notably for exhibitions in France next year. The gallery wants to dismantle stereotypes about Inuit art and change the way it’s viewed, says Coward Wight. “The more opportunities we have to show the work, the better,” she says. “It helps the public come to understand that this is not just an ethnic curiosity. This is fine art.”