The Canadian Arctic has been populated for more than 4,000 years. The first inhabitants can be traced back to Siberia, where they crossed over the Bering Strait and then migrated across Canada's Arctic as far east as Greenland, and as far South as Newfoundland. Remnants of this culture mostly consist of superbly fashioned small tools and weapons. Only a few of the preserved artifacts carved in ivory could be considered works of art.
Prehistoric Arctic Art
Among the descendants of Paleo-Eskimo people, a new culture started emerging around 800 B.C. The Dorset culture, as it is now called, produced a significant amount of figurative art between c. 600 B.C. to 1000 A.D. The Dorsets utilized ivory, bone, antler, and occasionally stone, to create small-scale birds, bears, walruses, seals, and human figures, as well as masks. These items had a magical or religious significance, and were either worn as amulets to ward off evil spirits, or used in shamanic rituals.
Around 1,000 A.D., the people of the Thule culture who were ancestors of today's Inuit, migrated from northern Alaska and either displaced or slaughtered the earlier Dorset inhabitants. Thule art differed from the Dorset culture art in that it had a definite Alaskan influence, and included utilitarian objects such as combs, buttons, needle cases, cooking pots, ornate spears and harpoons. The graphic decorations incised on them were purely ornamental, bearing no religious significance. The main purpose of this art was not to appease spirits or the forces of nature, but to make the objects used in everyday life appealing.
In the 16th century, contact with the white man began. Inuit began to barter with whalers, missionaries and other visitors to the north for tea, weapons or alcohol. Carvings of animals, hunting or camping scenes, usually made out of ivory, became common trade goods. Inuit artists also began producing ivory miniatures to be later used to decorate European rifles, tools, boats, and musical instruments. Cribbage boards and carved walrus tusks were intended for the whalers. Missionaries, on the other hand, encouraged the introduction of Christian imagery.
Contemporary Inuit Art is deeply embedded in a culture which has survived the cruel and harsh Arctic environment for thousands of years.
Since the Inuit lived off the land, all of their utensils, tools and weapons were made by hand from natural materials: stone, bone, ivory, antler, and animal hides. A nomadic people could take very little else with them besides the tools of their daily living; however, other non-utilitarian objects were also carved in miniature so that they could be carried around or worn, such as delicate earrings, dance masks, amulets, fetish figures, and intricate combs and figures which were used to tell legends and objectify their oral history and deeply held beliefs.
It was, therefore, a natural progression to begin increasing the size of the ornate sculptures made out of stone, bone, antler and ivory. As the Inuit settled into communities in the late 1940s, their carvings became larger, and the requests to produce them as artwork increased.
At that time, the Canadian Federal Government recognized the potential economic benefit of commercial carving to the Inuit, and actively encouraged the development and promotion of Inuit sculpture. In the new wave of artistic production, Inuit artists expanded the subject matter. Instead of utilitarian objects and games, the popular themes became figures of animals and hunters, family scenes, as well as mythological imagery. By the 1960s, co-operatives were set up in most Inuit communities, and the Inuit art market began to flourish. As well as providing much-needed income in isolated Arctic communities, Inuit sculpture has achieved an international reputation as a major contemporary art form.
As their fathers before them, the Inuit today continue to make pieces entirely by hand. Although power tools are certainly available to them, most artists prefer to use just an axe and file as this gives them more control over the stone. It is with these simple tools that the artist sets free the spirit of the animal contained within the block of stone. The final stage of carving is the polishing, which is done with several grades of waterproof sandpaper, and hours and hours of rubbing.
Since the early 1950s, when Inuit art still had a "primitive" or na´ve look, most Inuit artists have adopted a stylistic approach deeply rooted in naturalism. Their works often appear more refined, especially over the past decade or so, when many artists have developed a preference for highly polished sculpture.
Reference: Canadian Inuit Sculpture, Indian & Northern Affairs Canada publication ISBN: 0-662-59936-5; Ingo Hessel, Inuit Art; An Introduction, Douglas & McIntire, 1988.
For more information on contemporary Inuit art and distinctive regional sculptural styles, please see our Inuit art FAQ section ( No. 5 Does the Stone or Style vary from region to region? )
We invite you to visit our gallery through this website, or in person while in Toronto, where Inuit legends are preserved in stone and the traditional lifestyle of the Inuit is brought to life through their magnificent sculpture.
Contemporary Inuit Art
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