10/6/17

Art Road Trip: Ottawa, Part One (Inuit Art)



Ottawa's National Gallery of Canada (NGC) isn't the Smithsonian and it doesn't try to be. It's mostly as advertised: a repository of works from our northern neighbor and that makes it a treasure in its own right.  Remarkably, prior to comedian Steve Martin's recent curation of the works of landscape artist Lawren Harris, few Americans had thought much about Canadian art. Their loss. I will highlight a few things that struck my fancy in a recent visit to the NGC. Full disclosure: I'm not an art historian, so my remarks will be personal, observational, and preferential.


The Canadian aesthetic begins with how Canadians view indigenous peoples. They neither ghettoize native peoples nor assume that works from academically trained practitioners of the "fine arts" tradition are superior or more complex. It's normal to enter a NGC gallery and see works from "First Nations Peoples" such as the Cree, the Crow, the Tlingit, or the M├ętis (Indian/European mixed race) standing cheek by jowl with oils, sculptures, and other pieces produced by Euro-Canadians. And when curators comment on a Haida carved box from the Northwest, they do so with the same reverent terms they apply to Impressionist or Renaissance paintings.

My favorite First Nations artists are the Inuit. Art from the Arctic Circle region consists largely of ritual objects, stone-engraved prints, graphic designs, drawings, sculpture, and vernacular items such as baskets, clothing, fishhooks, harpoons, blankets, and tools. Some of these are ancient and date as far back as the 5 th century BCE, but much is more recent. That's because a lot Inuit art is analogous to that from Native Americans of the Southwest: it developed in response to Euro-Caucasian market forces. In other words, it was made for trade or sale. This became even more pronounced in the 1960s when the Canadian government set up art cooperatives to bring outside income into remote areas. It worked especially well in Cape Dorset, located on the southwest tip of Baffin Island. Today, Cape Dorset prints and carvings fetch handsome prices across the globe.




 My love of Inuit art comes from having seen works on paper from Pudlo Pudlat (1916-92) in both Montreal and Toronto in the 1970s, and then the NGC's retrospective of his work in 1990. I'll leave it others to determine Pudlo's place in the Inuit artistic pantheon, but if you have any doubts about whether art can change society, consider that in the 1970s most North Americans knew little about Baffin Island other than what they read in tales of ice-bound explorers and now it's the center of Canada's newest territory, Nunavut.  Its art is often naturalistic, mythical, or religious in nature, but there are also heavy doses of geometric design and representations of ordinary life. Some of my favorites are trenchant comments cloaked in humor on the ways in which tradition melds, contrasts, and clashes with Western religion, politics, customs and technology. There are scores of graphic artists on display at the NGC, but you need not take a crash course to appreciate their skillfulness, whimsy, or command of color and shape.

Carving is the best-known Inuit tradition. There's a gallery devoted to centuries of Inuit carving and even a brisk walk through will reveal the differences between museum and gallery quality works and the cheap knockoffs pedaled in tourist shops. Carvers originally worked in antler and ivory (from walruses and narwhals). Some still do as First Nations are allowed to hunt whales and game, but most newer works are fashioned from resin, bone, or soapstone—polished and buffed to a high sheen. These works are solid, weighty, and tactile. Popular themes include marine animals, bears, mythical creatures, and people. 



I highly recommend spending a lot of time in these galleries. Let's face it, you don't need to go to Ottawa to see European art, but you might to see stuff from Baffin Island. It may be the world's fifth largest island (who knew?), but all of Nunavut has just 37,000 people. Inuit art will help you imagine what life was once like in such a remote land. It also challenges you to imagine it is now. Art and technology have helped transform Nunavut, but next time you're in Montreal, pause to consider that Cape Dorset is still another 1250 miles to the north!     

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