From October 30, 2021–March 13, 2022 Remai Modern presents Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin, an exhibition that highlights Inuit art from the museum’s permanent collection in dialogue with the work of contemporary artists with connections to artists in the collection or to Indigenous communities on the Prairies. The exhibition highlights how artworks fail to fit within the “false canon of Inuit art.” Read on to learn a bit about the historical context the curators respond to in the exhibition.
Sunuyuksuk: Eskimo Handicrafts (1951) – James Houston
“In 1951, the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, funded by the Department of Mines and Resources, Northwest Territories Branch, and in co-operation with the Hudson’s Bay Company, published an instructional booklet entitled Sunuyuksuk: Eskimo Handicrafts. Written and illustrated by the guild’s Arctic representative, James Houston, the booklet offered suggestions to Inuit on what to make and what materials to use in their handicrafts and carvings in order to appeal to a southern market. The publication fulfilled a condition of the federal government’s agreement to fund the guild’s Arctic handicrafts initiatives, and for a time it was circulated widely throughout the North by HBC store managers, RCMP officers, teachers, missionaries, and other dedicated individuals.”Heather L. Igloliorte – James Houston, Sunuyuksuk: Eskimo Handicrafts, and the Formative Years
of Contemporary Inuit Art
In the end, the pamphlet was unsuccessful in its goals. Consumers perceived the items influenced by Houston’s ideas as inauthentic and artists largely ignored the pressure to make work that fit Houston’s paradigm. But the influence of Sunuyuksuk still reverberates. The idea of “authentic Inuit Art” remains a colonial narrative that is inversely influenced by the sketches and ideas presented by Houston.
“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.’ “– Guest curators Missy LeBlanc and Kablusiak, Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin curatorial essay
The work above, attributed to Epichuk, is a cribbage board made of walrus ivory. It originates from the community of Kinngait (Cape Dorset), and was purchased from a shop run by the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montréal in 1965. It resembles the cribbage board example in Houston’s instructional pamphlet. At the time of publication, the attribution to Epichuk is uncertain, no biographical information about the artist is known and more research is required. Cribbage Board is included in the exhibition to acknowledge the outside influence on the definition and classification of Inuit art.
The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (CEAC)
The information on the Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (CEAC) shared here is drawn from Inuk artist Heather Campbell’s research for Library and Archives Canada’s Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiative.
The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council (CEAC) was created through funding from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs in 1961. The CEAC was in charge of approving annual print collections for the Cape Dorset Eskimo Arts Council, and other collections from communities such as Ulukhaktok (formerly Holman) in the Northwest Territories, Pangnirtung in present-day Nunavut, and Povungnituk and Inukjuak in Nunavik (northern Quebec). The CEAC did not have an Inuk member until 1973, with the appointments of Joanasie Salomonie and Armand Tagoona. But both resigned before attending a meeting. Other appointments of Inuk members followed over the last few years of the CEAC.
The photo below includes a print of Sakiassie Ragee’s Spirits at Play (1961). This piece is included in Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin and is one of the works held by the Mendel Art Gallery Collection at Remai Modern.
The Igloo Tag program
The Igloo Tag program was created by the CEAC in 1958 to authenticate Inuit sculptures and provide consumers with information about the artist. In 2017, the Inuit Art Foundation (IAF) took over the administration of the Igloo Tag program. Governed by a majority of Inuit artists since 1994, the IAF is part of a larger effort to ensure control of the marketing, administration, curation and art history of Inuit art is in Inuit hands.
Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin
Though these organizations attempted to impose a colonial influence on Inuit art through these programs, the artists took their own paths. Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin showcases examples of artworks that do not fit within the canon of Inuit Art as we have come to know it. Whether experimenting with abstraction, using the popular colours of the time or taking influence from popular culture, Inuit artists have always, as guest curators Kablusiak and LeBlanc write, “utilized contemporary materials and asserted their artistic autonomy while creating work that is distinctly Inuit.”
In addition to offering examples of works that exist inside and outside these colonial narratives of “authentic Inuit art,” Atautchikun | wȃhkôtamowin also highlights the fact that Inuit have always engaged in and responded to contemporary dialogues, media and technologies. These works push against the notion of a culture frozen in time and challenge parochial conventions.
Additional stories and connections are also made through the inclusion of contemporary artists and new work in the exhibition. In the coming weeks and months, we are excited to share more about Atautchikun | wâhkôtamowin.