The Art of the North – V

All Things Great and Small

Amongst the 1000 treasures at the now closed Museum of Inuit Art were objects both great and small.

The small included some of the loveliest miniature carvings I’ve seen anywhere. And like miniatures in museums all over the world they reflected a moment frozen in time of the world surrounding the carver. Some went back to the late 1800s with the more recent being created in this century. Most were in ivory – from walrus tusk – with the addition in some cases of stone or other natural materials found in the area. They came from varied regions across the North – Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Northern Labrador and Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay). The earlier examples are the work of anonymous artisans carving scraps of tusk often into rough approximations of what they saw around them. However the highlight was a miniature landscape created by one of the great Inuit miniaturists, the late Emily Iluitok. (A click on the link will lead to some other stunning examples of this artist’s works)


All artists anonymous

Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet)
Seated Woman (left front) – c1920

Men – seated and standing c1880-1920
Ivory and pigment

Igloo – unattributed
Ivory and pigment



Artist and Region unidentified
Bear Heads– c 1950
Ivory, stone, pigment


Emily Iluitok (1943-2012)
Kugaaruk (Pelly Bay)
Winter Scene
Ivory, stone, leather, hide, sinew
(Again a left click will enlargen the photos for a closer look.)

Prior to closing it’s door on May 30 the Museum hosted one final exhibition – the works of Abraham Anghik Ruben. Ruben is an artist whose concepts are as large as Emily Iluitok’s are small and who’s medium comes from beyond the Arctic. But if he carves largely in stones from as far afield as Brazil and Portugal his subjects remain of the North. But Ruben goes beyond the regions of Canada to include many Northern cultures. As well as his own heritage he looks to the legends and gods of the Icelandic  countries to inspire his monumental works.

The entrance to the MIA was flanked by two of his sculptures – one inspired by an ancient legend and the other by recent history.

Beowulf is recognized as the first known record of English story telling and its roots are in the stories of the Anglo-Saxon invaders from the North. Ruben captures the hero helmeted for battle with Grendel, the first of the three monsters he faces in the saga.

Abraham Anghik Ruben (b. 1951)
Beowulf – 2013
Brazilian soapstone, Portugese Alabaster
(Again a left click will take you to a slideshow of larger pictures.)

Aside from the complexity of his pieces – in line and symbolisim – the sheer size and, I’m sure weight, of his pieces are awesome.  Setting them in place is a major chore as demonstrated in this slideshow.

Abraham Anghik Ruben (b. 1951)
New World Saga

Unfortunately this was the last exhibition to be hosted by the Museum of Inuit Art.  The collection will either go into storage or be broken up and perhaps leave Canada.  It is difficult to imagine any Canadian arts institute  in today’s climate having the budget to acquire or display it properly.  A sad commentary.


On this day in 1836: The formation of the London Working Men’s Association gives rise to the Chartist Movement.

The Art of the North – IV

As well as displaying its own collection the Museum of Inuit Art (MIA) had a long tradition of highlighting, through special exhibitions, the works of individual artists and artists’ collectives from the North. I was fortunate that on my last visit they were hosting works by ceramic artists from the Kangirqlinik Centre arranged by the Matchbox Gallery in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet).

Ceramics? Not something that is immediately associated with the North! Stone and ivory carving –yes! Print making – certainly! But ceramics? What are the odds of there being both the material and the medium for the creation and firing of clay in the frozen North?

Well in 1962 someone at the Department of Northern Affairs and Resources decided that pottery would be just the thing to replace the recently closed nickel mine at what was then Rankin Inlet. Based on the spurious notion that ceramics were a “ancient lost art” of the Inuit (shards of pottery had been found in the Far North West) the officials at the Industrial Division of the Department decided it was what was needed to jump start the economy and compete with the successful carving and print making popular inroad in other Northern communities.

Claude Grenier, and his wife Cecile were sent up to Rankin to set up a ceramic studio and arts centre. Grenier taught the techniques but allowed the artists to go their own way with design and form. As so often happens what followed was a wide difference between what the Southern “experts” paternally felt should be done, what was “best” for the Inuit and the will and desires of the People themselves. The story of the struggle to find a real Inuit voice and the bureaucratic failure of that first attempt is told in From A Different Mould from Uphere Magazine.

The Matchbox Gallery in Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet).

Though government support of the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project dried up, the creative urge of the people involved did not. In 1979 Jim and Sue Shirley, two American artists, came to Kivalliq and began to work with the local artists. Eight years later they founded the Matchbox Gallery as a cross-cultural workshop dedicated to serving as a display, production, and training centre. Though the artists in the collective work in printmaking, painting, carving and jewellery making the predominant creative medium at the Gallery is ceramics.

Most of the major artists from the Kangirqlinik Centre were represented in what I thought was a truly fascinating exhibition of an art form which I had never associated with the North.

Here are a few of the works that I found remarkable. (Left click for a closer look and again where there are multiple pictures a left click will lead to a slideshow.  A click on an artist’s name will take you to their biography.)


Yvo Samgushak (1942-2013)
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Pot with Female Figures 2006


Roger Aksadjuak
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Hunter’s Last Journey


Jack Nuviyak and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Polar Bear Cubs


Pierre Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
A Man Saving His Brother


Pierre Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Message from the Afterlife



Pierre Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Giving Thanks


John Kurok and Leo Napayok
Kangiqliniq (Rankin Inlet)
Man Holding Bird

Though the article on the original Rankin project talks of an electric kiln I was told by one of the docents at the MIA that the method used at the Kangirqlinik Centre is akin to the centuries old pit firing.  This ancient way of firing – used for centuries by pottery makers in Japan, Africa and many Nomadic cultures – has been adapted for the conditions of the North; the permafrost precludes a dug pit so oil drums are packed sawdust and the unfired pieces embedded in it.  Unfortunately I could not find anything that demonstrates drum firing but this short video gives an idea of the process.


On this day in 1899: American Temperance crusader Carrie Nation begins her campaign of vandalizing alcohol-serving establishments by destroying the inventory in a saloon in Kiowa, Kansas.

The Art of the North – III

This beautiful stone carving by Pootoogook Jaw was in a corner waiting to be set up to be seen to better advantage so I was unable to get a complete picture. Most Inuit carvings have to be seen from all angles to get the full effect.  (A left click will bring you to a slide show of Hunter.)


A master carver, Pootoogook Jaw is second of four sons who have carried on the family tradition, begun by their father Joe Jaw, of sculpting the stone of the North to capture the story of the Inuit.   As with many Inuit artists he learned his craft and the stories of his people as a child watching his father and mother Mialia, also a respected carver, at work. And as with many sculptors the type of stone he works in will often dictate the style of the carving; here the lines are simple and uncomplicated.

The caption on the description of this piece listed Jaws’ community as Kinngniat however it is actually Kinngiat (Cape Dorset) or High Moutain in Inuktitut.  Kinngiat is reputed to be the most artistic community in Canada – over 22% of the population are involved in the arts as painters, print makers and carvers.

This is one of the 1000 works in the MIA collection who’s fate is currently unknown.  Hopefully another museum will acquire it and put it on display.

On this day in 1935:  One thousand unemployed Canadian workers board freight cars in Vancouver, British Columbia, beginning a protest trek to Ottawa.

The Art of the North – II

I was surprised to see two brightly coloured and intricately beaded cloth parkas on display at the MIA. I had an image of Inuit clothing as being mostly skins and being almost monochromatic in their colouring. Though traditional clothing would have been entirely made of skins and fur now woven cloth is frequently used; however the beadwork is still traditional.


In her book Beadwork: First Peoples’ beading history and technique, Christi Belcourt speaks to those traditions:

“First Nations, Métis and Inuit beadwork are beautiful art forms that are unique to North America. The patterns and techniques created and passed down through generations of our grandmothers are still being used today. Beadwork is not simple decoration of material goods. It is an expression of identity. It is an art form that connects us to the skills, the sacrifices and the creativity of our ancestors. Beadwork carries images that are ancient and reflect spiritual beliefs. And even more than that, beadwork is a healing art.”
Publisher’s abstract
Ningwakwe Learning Press, c2010



The parka worn by Inuit women is called an amauti after the unique baby pouch (amaut) that is built into it. It also has two apron-like flaps, one at the front, and another at the back. The amaut is a complex design that creates a large pouch for the baby from birth until about two yeas of age. The shoulders of a woman’s parka are voluminous which allows the mother to bring the child back to front for feeding and elimination without exposing the baby to the elements.



A man’s parka has roomy shoulders to allow for the movement of the hunt and doesn’t have flaps, though in some regions (including the parka on display) it might have a back flap or be cut longer.

One of the many educational programmes that the Museum offered was a course on the art of Inuit beadwork taught by women from various Northern communities. Just another loss with the closing of the MIA.

An bone awl (kaputaq) carved to resemble a sea otter.
McCord Museum – Montreal

The McCord Museum in Montreal has a good collection of Inuit art including clothing and their website includes two pages devoted to Inuit clothing. Written by Betty Kobayashi Issenman, a champion of Northern Native culture, they are a fascinating look into the clothing, its use, the materials and tools used in its construction. Much of what I’ve written was gleaned from the following two articles:

Inuit Clothing and its Construction

The Art and Technique of Inuit Clothing (includes many fascinating photographs)

On this day in 1835:  P. T. Barnum and his circus start their first tour of the United States.

The Art of the North – I

In the middle of April I received the following (in part) very sad e-mail:

It is with heavy hearts that we write to inform you that the Canadian Museum of Inuit Art (MIA) and the MIA Gift Shop will be closing its doors to the public beginning May 30th, 2016.

After nine years of fulfilling our mission to produce exceptional educational opportunities and innovative and immersive exhibitions of Inuit artistic expressions, the museum will sadly no longer be able to operate in a public-facing capacity. The difficult decision was made by the Board of Directors in March after accepting that current levels of funding and support has made the museum as it is currently structured, no longer sustainable.

MIA3_375I only discovered the MIA in Toronto a year or so ago when I was visiting a small exhibition of the work of Manasie Akpaliapik at the AGO. As well as introducing me to the incredible variety of Inuit art well beyond the ubiquitous soapstone carvings the Akapaliapik exhibition led me to explore other venues dedicated to the work of the Northern People of this continent. A search for the use of whalebone as a medium for carving led me to an article by one of the curators of the Museum of Inuit Art.

And two visits to the small but well laid out facility down at Queen’s Quay on the Toronto waterfront revealed Inuit art in many of its varied forms. Yes there were soapstone carvings but there was also scrimshaw, bead-work, miniatures, ceramics and works in media as varied as metal, glass, clay, stone, antler, ivory, hide and sinew.

An exhibition area of the recently closed Museum of Inuit Art. Notice the carved whalebone – it was a search for information on its use in Inuit carving that led me to the MIA.

Over the next few days I thought I’d share some photos I took of a few of the works on display during those two visits. Unfortunately it is often not possible to avoid the reflection of lights on the glass cases but I think both the beauty and the originality of the pieces still come through.

A left lick on a photo will enlarge it or lead to a slideshow where there are multiple pictures.

Qsuitok Ipeelee (attr.) (1923-2005)
Kinngait (Cape Dorest)
Mother and Child


Unfortunately I did not capture any information on this rather endearing little creature.


David Ruben Piqtoukun (b1950)
Musk-ox Man (left)
Brazilian steatite, antler
Fire Spirit Rising (right)
Stone, charcoal, unidentified medium


Ennutsiak (1896-1967)
Women Preparing Food (left) c.1960s
Inuit Bible Class (right) c 1960s
Stone, Ivory


Artists unknown – late 1800 early 1900s
Scrimshaw Cribbage Boards


This unique piece comes from an unknown source and is made of antler and stone.  It is thought to be from the early 1900s and several of the birds depicted are not native to the North.  Their presence is a bit of a mystery.

This modern tea pot by an Inuit artist has an art-deco look to it. Again I very foolishly neglected to capture an information about it.

On this day in 1813: James Lawrence, the mortally-wounded commander of the USS Chesapeake, gives his final order: “Don’t give up the ship!”