“Authentic Inuit Art” in a Neo-Colonial Arctic

PART OF THE “INUIT ART-CRUSTRUCTING THE AUTHENTIC VIEW”SERIES ON ART ATTACHÉ

The question of authenticity for what constitutes Inuit Art has been an ongoing issue since its inception in the 1950s. Immediate popularity of the craft resulted in mass production, consequently affecting the quality of the works produced. A multi-million-dollar industry was conceived from the mass-produced tourist trinkets but jeopardised the overall integrity of the craft and ‘fine art’ coming out of the Arctic.[1] Inuit Art regarded as a symbol of identity is often considered bastardised through the demands for specific romanticised realities and the need for tourist trinkets.

During the 1950’s and 1960s, life for the Inuit changed at a rapid pace especially via the establishment of government institutions in the North and the transition to settlements. As a consequence of re-location, skilled carvers caught the attention of Toronto based artist James Houston, a member of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild. During this period of transition, what originally had been an activity for ad-hoc trade, became their mainstay and their formal introduction to the capitalist economy. The Guild, in partnership with Houston began to incorporate Inuit creations within their exhibitions and sales. Success from the exhibitions and sales led Houston to encourage Inuit to transition from Ivory to Soapstone, as it was a more accessible material.[2]

For decades, Inuit had been using ivory to create small scale miniatures (FIG 1) of objects and animals for occasional trade. The material transition (FIG 2) was significant as Houston used this as a way of encouraging the creating of figurative stone sculptures. The change in medium and re-location ironically left artists depicting traditional subject matters far from their new experienced reality which instigated questions of authenticity raised by Edmund Carpenter, George Swinton amongst others.

The formation of Community Co-operatives such as Cape Dorset and Baker Lake served as establishments for trade and producing art as an early example of Inuit introduction to the capitalist economy. Houston not only helped establish the Co-operatives which would come to define the economies of the North but was also integral in enabling the Printmaking program alongside the Soapstone carvings creating a controlled market. The collective process of printmaking helped emphasise a primitive quality that contrasts the individualism of the wider contemporary art paradigm. Through his efforts, Houston was integral in forging an image of the Inuit to sell to southern audiences by promoting a vision of ‘traditional life’ and heritage in order to capture the imaginations of the non-Inuit despite Western influence assimilating into Inuit life.[3]

This neo-colonial perspective facilitated a controlled market driven output of art that depicted tradition to maintain a primitive illusion. However, the Canadian government failed to realise that a complete shift in lifestyle for the Inuit would inevitably create a new narrative that is far removed from the authenticity they were promoting. According to Edmund Carpenter an anthropologist and traditionalist, there was a general resistance to most portrayals of anything non-Inuit and that, “thousands of ‘unsuitable’ carvings were destroyed”.[4] He suggested that as a consequence of the economic benefits of portraying Inuit Art in a certain light has inevitably skewed a traditional perception of Inuit culture around the world, even to this day.

Norman Vorano, an Inuit Art Historian, asserts that people such as James Houston, are seen as “cultural brokers” and rightfully suggests an object from one culture cannot transcend to another.[5] This notion links back to the broader global context of primitivism and specifically the 1985 primitivism exhibition in the MOMA where tribal objects were removed from their original context and placed alongside modern art creating a purely aesthetic correlation which asserts a Western centrality among modern art.[6] This comparison is an example of the impact Western aesthetics would have on the perception of authentic Inuit Art. Houston alongside the nationalistic agenda of the Canadian Government had managed to establish Inuit Art as the primary conduit to which non-Inuit encounter their culture.[7] This allowed them to assert their interpretation of Inuit authenticity resulting in creating preconceived expectations within the market.

Igloo Tags: Stamp of Authenticity

Following the success of the initial years, the illusion of the exotic was sustained through the introduction the ‘Igloo Tag’, (FIG 3) in 1959. While this stamp of authenticity contributed to the economic benefits of Inuit Art and the distinctiveness of Inuit craft, this intervention continued to foster the production of highly primitive works of art. The Igloo Tag failed to address the underlying problem of an authentic portrayal of Inuit identity as it was all too cantered on what the market desired. The Tag was presented as both a means to ensure that ‘fakes’ do not circulate the market and as a protective measure for Inuit Artists. In reality, it was an assertion of authenticity that articulated a falsified vision of the Arctic. The Tag continues to have relevance in today’s market as an indicator of authenticity. Accompanied by political patronage appeared to be more of a symbol of Canadian self-image than the Inuit culture it was trying to protect.[8] In 2017, as a means of protecting and supporting the Inuit Artist community, the Igloo Tag trademark was officially transferred to the Inuit Art Foundation.[9] This was a positive contribution to the culture of Inuit Art where Inuit can control the narrative of their identity within the market.

Inuit Art is internationally recognised as purely Inuit identity but also as part of Canadian heritage. This idea, as discussed before, was inevitable due to Canadian intervention in the craft, but the portrayal of identity is traceable to the first-ever international exhibition between the years of 1956 and 1962. The government-backed initiative was at its core, a political campaign in the post-WW2 period emphasising Canadian ‘national culture’.[10] This was especially significant as Canada was fostering their own identity after becoming a member of the British Commonwealth. Indigenous art and culture provided the rhetoric to assert a ‘national pride’ within Canada, forging a new identity while distancing from its colonial roots.

Aesthetic Assertions of Authenticity

Before being recognised as a symbol of Canadian heritage, the notion of authenticity was concerned initially with its status as an ethnic traditional art that superseded individual expression. Within the context of Western aesthetic theory, critics such as Clement Greenberg were identifying modernist art as an extension of enlightenment criticism and self-expression.[11] Even though Inuit Art aligned itself with modernist theory, if you strip away the market driven industry surrounding it, the romanticised primitive qualities were all too profitable to deviate from this perspective. Indeed, to satisfy market demands, Houston even claimed that “the Eskimo people did not learn their art from the south”.[12]

As stated before, Inuit Art of the Contemporary Period was the product of Western influences. The demand for it to fulfil external and unrealistic criteria of authenticity and tradition for saleability was so entrenched that even art historians found it necessary to evoke the insignificance of Western Influence. For instance, in 1972 Joan Vastokas aimed to justify why Inuit Art was no less authentic because of significant culture change. She made a comparison with Picasso’s cubism and African influence concluding that Picasso’s work is no less European.[13] This argument is fundamentally flawed as she first fails to address how the culture of ‘fine-arts’ was non-existent before Western influence in the North and secondly, makes a Euro centric comparison that inherently favours Western aesthetics and is not applicable to Inuit acculturation.[14] This in my view is a fundamental reason why even 60 years on, issues on authenticity concerning the Inuit narrative are still being raised.

Art removed from its original context and promoted as a purely visual quality is considered universal. Inuit Art has been articulated by modernist theory to be appreciated aesthetically first. Orthodox formalist viewpoints at the time dictated that implications of knowledge and context may interfere the viewers potential pleasure of its form. However, through hindsight it is more apparent that this justification was a ploy to maintain profitability. George Swinton who is widely influential on the topic, provides a strong counterpoint to formalist argument for maintaining a primitivist assumption. He states that the attention given to the economic aspects of Inuit Art is “an unjustifiable anti-humanistic bias against these new art forms, their artistic, and aesthetic validity”.[15] As a formalist, he maintains the importance of aesthetics but recognises the success and authenticity of Inuit Art as a product of the modern individual and of self-expression.[16]

For years, any incorporation and signs of modernity within Inuit Art has been dismissed by Non-Inuit audiences. Culture and identity are facets of society that are cultivated over time through lived experiences. An apparent inability to break away from primitive perceptions is the result of deep-rooted colonial foundations within Inuit Art and the consciousness of the market. Thus, the perception of Inuit identity is frozen within this primitive framework. The categorisation of it being wholly created for non-Inuit markets which portrays thematic demands rather than the diversity of the Inuit identity has plagued contemporary Inuit Art culture.

As Inuit adapted with the transition to modernity and embraced visual arts as a means of economic survival, it deserves a mention, that despite the focus on traditional subject matter, artists were able to navigate between the aesthetic preferences of their Southern audiences and their own individual inclinations to respond to their changing environment. Thus shifts in artistic self-expression began to take fold questioning the notions of authenticity.

Discover more about Inuit Art on Art Attaché


[1] St-Onge, C. G., Symbols of Authenticity: Challenging the Static Imposition of Minority Identities Through the Case Study of Contemporary Inuit Art. (University of Ottawa. 2012) (M.A. degree in Religious Studies). p.52-53

[2] Engelstad, B. D., “Inuit Art and the Creation of the Nunavut” in Inuit Modern: The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection, ed. Gerald McMaster (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario and Douglas & McIntyre Publishers Inc., 2011 pp.35-36

[3] Igloliorte, H., “Hooked Forever on Primitive Peoples: James Houston and the Transformation of Eskimo Handicrafts to Inuit Art”, in E. Harney & R. Philips, Mapping Modernisms, (London, Duke University Press, 2018), pp. 65-66

[4] Graburn N. H. H., Inuit Art and the Expression of Eskimo Identity, American Review of Canadian Studies, (1987), 17 (1) pp. 47-66.doi:10.1080/02722018709480976 p.52

[5] Vorano, N. Inuit Art in the Qallunaat World: Modernism, Museums and the Popular Imaginary, 1949-1962. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 2007). pp. 41-42

[6] Rubin. W., “Introduction” in William Rubin, ed., “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, vol. 1, (New York: MoMA, 1985) pp. 1-79.

[7] Guy Brett, “Unofficial Versions,” in The Myth of Primitivism: Perspectives on Art, ed. Susan Hiller

(London and New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 122.

[8] Marc Denhez, The Igloo Tag, What It Represents, and Where it May Go (Ottawa: Unpublished report prepared by Marc Denhez B.C.L. for Inuit Art Section, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, ATIP Request 2011 – 00103, 1994), 36.

[9] IAF (2020) Home Page. [online] Available from: https://www.inuitartfoundation.org (Accessed 01 April 2020).

[10] Vorano (2007), pp.350-352

[11] Auger, (2005), p.138

[12] Houston. J., “Port Harrison,1948” in Port Harrison Exhibition catalogue (Winnipeg, The Winnipeg Art Gallery, 1976, p.2

[13] Vastokas, J., “Continuities in Eskimo Graphic Style” in Artscanada 27.6 (1972) p.83

[14] Auger, (2005), p.140

[15] Auger (2005). P.141

[16] Swinton, George. Sculpture of the Inuit. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1999 pp.17-19

Published by Ravi

University of Warwick Class of 2020 BA(Hon) History of Art Founder and CEO of Art Attaché

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