HUNTERS AND SHAMANS
Curator Darlene Coward Wight’s latest exhibition of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery explores six decades of creative transformation.
Curator Darlene Coward Wight’s basement office is an amazing place. Along with maps, books, posters and photographs, Wight is surrounded by decades of stone, bone and ivory – some of the 11,000 works in the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s remarkable collection of Inuit art. Far from the shared curatorial offices on the second floor, it’s more cabinet of curiosities than sterile cubicle. The gallery has collected Inuit art since 1957, its interest initially emerging, in part, from Winnipeg’s business connections with the Arctic. Over the years, it has amassed the world’s largest public collection of Inuit art, a vast array that’s notable for its broad geographic and chronological range.
Wight, who has curated more than 70 exhibitions since she joined the gallery in 1986, recently returned from Toronto auctions and meetings with dealers and collectors about the gallery’s plans to build the Inuit Art and Learning Centre to house its growing collection. Enthused by her travels, Wight is working with an exhibition designer from the National Gallery of Canada on arrangements for a major survey exhibition, Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art, which draws on 250 pieces from the gallery’s collection to tell the story of contemporary Inuit art in Canada. The exhibition, which opens Jan. 25, explores major developments of the last six decades through sculpture, prints, drawings and textile art. Included is work by carvers such as Johnny Inukpuk, Davidialuk Alasua Amittu and Karoo Ashevak as well as graphic artists such as Jessie Oonark and Shuvinai Ashoona.
The history of Inuit art exhibitions in Canada parallels the growth of public acceptance and understanding of the genre. A trajectory can be traced from early shows in the 1950s of what was then called “Eskimo” art, through exhibitions based on communities, particular artists and annual print editions as well as themes such as shamanism, and specific media such as etchings or textiles. With so many choices, how did Wight pick work for this show? She says her selections are based on detailed timelines and the availability of objects that best represent “the narrative thesis of defining moments, trends, events and institutions.”
Accompanying the exhibition is a 240-page hardcover book of the same name that offers a conceptual map and a means of entering the story of Inuit art. Co-published by the gallery and Douglas & McIntyre, it traces the history of the Winnipeg collection as well as the contributions of important figures such as James Houston and George Swinton, who helped bring Inuit art to public attention in the 1950s. The book, illustrated with 150 colour and archival photographs, is structured for easy skimming as well as a dedicated front-to-back reading, and includes contributions by other experts.
Little is more iconic or classically Canadian than a work of Inuit art. Whether a hunter, a mother and child, or an illustration of a story from oral traditions, Inuit sculpture is an original genre. Given as a gift, it carries a message of authenticity, whether real or perceived. It can be seen as a way to depict and remember a hunting way of life or as a post-colonial footnote. Inuit art emerges out of a complex dynamic. There are multiple stakeholders, including artists, cooperatives, communities, dealers, critics, curators, art historians, anthropologists, bureaucrats and government agencies. Voice, power, economics, authenticity, meaning and the national interest are themes and emphases that continue to infuse the field.
“ A history of Inuit art is necessarily multifaceted, since it emerged and developed under many influences,” Wight notes in her book. “Some of these influences were financial, in the face of cultural and economic upheaval and the need to regain self-reliance; some were related to carving materials available at different times and in different places; some were the result of the introduction of art forms as diverse as drawing, printmaking, ceramics, woven tapestries, fabric collage wall hangings, and metal and jewelry arts.”
Creation and Transformation coincides with the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s centenary – it is the country’s oldest public art gallery – and its campaign to build a research centre for the exhibition, storage and conservation of the Inuit collection. The new building, adjacent to the main gallery, is expected to open in 2016. Designed by American architect Michael Maltzan, it will connect to the gallery to form a tripartite cultural oasis, with the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art glittering on the other side. Think of it as a gallery sandwich. And, if Wight has her way, the new building will include visible storage to boost public awareness of the collection’s marvels.
Wight studied art history at Carleton University in Ottawa, earning her Master’s degree in 1981. She spent five years working for Canadian Arctic Producers, the central marketing agency for Inuit-owned cooperatives in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, traveling to communities, meeting artists and advising art-making cooperatives. “People were doing bear shows and mother-and-child shows,” says Wight. “I wanted to start interviewing the artists.”
Wight continued to visit the Arctic after moving to Winnipeg, her trips now too numerous to count, and spent months traveling across the North with a scaled-down version of Out of Tradition, a 1989 exhibition of carvings by Abraham Anghik and David Ruben Piqtoukun. Carvings, meant to be seen in the round from all points of view, are notoriously heavy and difficult to display. The Arctic tour featured an ingenious system of lightweight collapsible pedestals and signage that could be adapted for schools and community centres.
Last year, the University of Manitoba awarded Wight an honourary doctorate in recognition of her remarkable career, noting her “inexhaustible, almost contagious passion for the subject.” Known for her uncanny ability to remember vast networks of artists across the Arctic, she has accomplished what most curators dream of – a prodigious output of significant research and fascinating exhibitions.
Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art is at the Winnipeg Art Gallery from January 25 to April 14.
1950s: Commercialism expands after a 1949 exhibition of Inuit carvings at the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal marks the start of an arts-and-crafts industry that will transform life for many Inuit. James Houston, a young artist originally from Toronto, travels in the North.
1960s: Inuit-owned cooperatives are established across the Canadian Arctic to support a growing industry that provides work for people moving into settlements. Sculpture continues to be produced and printmaking grows in importance.
1970s: A time of expansion, especially for prints and textile arts, with new printmaking projects in Baker Lake, Pangnirtung and Arctic Quebec.
1980s: Sales fall due to the global recession. The National Gallery of Canada begins collecting Inuit and other indigenous art.
1990s: Some artists start to work independently, connecting with dealers and curators through the Internet and taking advantage of improved travel.
2000s: Social, political and economic changes in the North are reflected in a new cultural momentum that includes the fast rise of artist Annie Pootoogook, winner of the Sobey Art Award in 2006. Public galleries and museums highlight their collections in large shows.
Source: Creation and Transformation: Defining Moments in Inuit Art