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Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin: Curatorial Essay

Curatorial Essay by Missy LeBlanc and Kablusiak

Since contact, Inuit have been directly influenced by settlers. In the context of contemporary art, overt examples of settler-colonial influence include Sunuyuksuk: Eskimo Handicrafts published in 1951 and the creation of the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (CEAC) in 1961. Sunuyuksuk, a pamphlet written by James Houston, offered “suggestions to Inuit on what to make and what materials to use in their handicraft and carving production to make it appealing to a southern market”.1  Sunuyuksuk was published through a partnership between three settler-colonial organizations: the Canadian Handicrafts Guild; the Department of Mines and Resources, North West Territories Branch; and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Ultimately, it failed to pressure Inuit to create works identical to those presented in the pamphlet, because consumers2 sought “authentic” Inuit art. In the wake of the southern market’s hunger for perceived authenticity, a stereotype of Inuit art developed that persists to this day. Inuit artists are still pressured to fit into these stereotypical confines developed by tan’ngit/môniyâwak/white art historians, curators, critics, and dealers regardless of whether or not it is acknowledged by non-Indigenous people working within the mainstream art discourse. 

The works that have been celebrated using these stereotypical conventions—i.e. works depicting traditional Inuit activities and scenes of northern animals—have created a false canon of Inuit art that does not take into account or represent the contemporaneity, breadth, or depth of Inuit culture, nor their art forms. Though these works require great technical skill, they often adhere to consumer desire for “primitive authenticity”.3

Exemplary of a suggested object in Sunuyuksuk, Cribbage Board (attributed to Epichuk) is included in the exhibition to acknowledge and to highlight that there was/is an outside influence on the definition and classification of Inuit art. Objects that are not thought of as authentic, but are identical or similar to those in the pamphlet, are rarely included in current exhibitions of Inuit art. Additionally, printworks that received the CEAC’s seal of approval— meaning they met the standards set forth by the CEAC for quality and marketability4—such as Spirits at Play (Sakiassie Ragee, 1961) and Mother and Children Frightened by Demons (Napachie Pootoogook, 1961) are included in the exhibition not because they meet the CEAC’s standard. Rather, they are included because they portray aspects of Inuit spirituality that are ever-present, but often ignored by non-Inuit. 

Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin demonstrates that there has always been an outside influence imposed onto Inuit art and that Inuit have always engaged in and responded to contemporary dialogues, media, and technologies. The delicate protruding heads in Geese (unidentified artist, no date), and the use of duffel, felt, and embroidery thread in Annie Taipana’s Figures on Brown Duffel (c. 1970) are representative of designs and materials Sunuyuksuk and other similar documents discouraged.5 These two works illustrate that Inuit artists have always utilized contemporary materials and asserted their artistic autonomy while creating work that is distinctly Inuit. 

Throughout Remai Modern’s collection, there are examples of artworks that do not fit within the canon of Inuit Art as we have come to know it. There are works from the 1960s that utilize motifs commonly found in Inuit art while experimenting with abstraction. These works engage in a dialogue with similar explorations happening in Modern Art. Printworks created in the 1970s are bathed in chartreuse—the colour of the decade—while works from the 1990s feature bold colour blocks similar to those found throughout popular culture at the time. Outliers in the collection, the colours and styles of these works push against the notion of a culture frozen in time. 

Due to the popularity of Inuit art amongst southern consumers and institutions, these works reside far away from their original homelands. As a way to acknowledge this presence of large collections of Inuit art across the Prairies and to honour those whose lands Remai Modern occupies, artists and writers who have ancestral connections to territories located across the Prairies have been invited to create new work or alter existing works for the exhibition. In keeping with the exhibition’s themes, these works speak to Indigenous autonomy, contemporaneity, and futurity. Additionally, Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin includes works from artists and writers with degrees of connectedness to Inuk artists represented in the museum’s collection. These familial conversations across time and space illustrate what Inuit art is and can be outside of colonial frameworks of monetary gain. 

Our curatorial goal for the invited artists is a space for them to create works that expand or refuse expectations of Indigenous art. Amanda Strong’s film, Flood (2017), seeks new and different visual representations of Métis culture. Through Matroyska dolls and figurative painting, Annie Beach thoughtfully acknowledges the parts of her identity that often become unintentionally separated. Kyle Natkusiak Aleekuk appropriates and mixes traditional western tattoo design with Inuit motifs. Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory’s installation affronts societal expectations of both Kalaallit, and of arnait. Through photography and the creation of a bowhead baleen corset, Tarralik Duffy references both the power of arnait sexuality and the destructive history of European over-harvesting. Tenille Campbell’s poetic installation examines the relationship between Dene and Inuit, and the inevitability of change. Finally, Tony Anguhalluq’s use of colour blocking and abstraction amplifies what contemporary Inuit drawing and printmaking looks like today. 

The inclusion of artists with familial ties to artists present in the collection was done to remind viewers that Inuit art is a continuum and exists in multiple forms. This exhibition, sparked by the museum’s Inuit art collection, takes place on non-traditional Inuit land, and this was not lost on us. Indigenous artists and writers with ties to the Prairies graciously shared their work with us and created new works with a vision of experimentation. These artists are tied together by how they expand expectations of Indigenous art, and their ability to defy stereotypes and redefine what Indigenous art can be with full Indigenous autonomy. It is our hope that with the inclusion of artists and writers connected by land and kin, Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin—and the publication produced in concert with the exhibition—will continue a generative discussion on the threads that tie Inuit to Indigenous communities of the south. 

Written by Missy LeBlanc and Kablusiak, guest curators of Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin.

  1. Heather Igloliorte, “By the Book? Early Influences on Inuit Art”, Inuit Art Quarterly 21, no. 2 (2006): 33.
  2. In this essay we are using the word “consumers” over “collectors” with the intention of highlighting the power structures inherent to collecting as well as the non-reciprocal relationship that Inuit have with people who purchase(d) their artwork both historically and currently.
  3. See Heather Igloliorte, “Influence and Instruction: James Houston, Sunuyuksuk: Eskimo Handicrafts, and the Formative Years of Contemporary Inuit Art,” Master’s thesis (Carleton University, 2006). Igloliorte has also noted that since speaking with Inuktitut translators, it has been made apparent that Houston was using incorrect spelling and the correct interpretation of the term for “handicrafts” should be “Sanaigaksak”.
  4. Heather Campbell, “The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council — Defining Inuit art,” Library and Archives Canada Blog, Library and Archives Canada, last modified January 4, 2021, https://thediscoverblog.com/2021/01/04/the-canadian-eskimo-arts-council-defining-inuit-art/ 
  5. Other guiding documents that were produced with the intention of instructing Inuit include Suggestions for Home Workers published by the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in 1922 and Suggestions for Eskimo Handicrafts published by the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, Indian and Eskimo Committee in 1947.