Contemporary Period

At the turn of the 21st century, artists across the North, while maintaining their ethnic distinctiveness, are adjusting to a set of circumstances different from those faced by previous generations. Perhaps the most far-reaching change is that whether they make functional/aesthetic art (more exactly replicas of functional/aesthetic art) or embrace conventional fine-art media and techniques, almost all indigenous art from the Arctic today is created for consumption in a culture economically and politically more powerful than theirs. Around this central axis of change revolves a host of related issues—appropriation, authenticity, thematic, and creative constraint to name a few—common to indigenous artists across the Arctic. To illustrate these developments, it will be helpful to focus on the art making of a single group, the Canadian Inuit, and to use their history as a lens through which to view more general trends. Arguably the most successful of any modern-day indigenous art form anywhere, the story of Canadian Inuit art brings to light many of the triumphs and pitfalls facing Arctic artists today.

The history of Canadian Inuit soapstone sculpture and printmaking is so well known that it needs no more than a brief summary here. In the summer of 1948, James Houston, a young Canadian artist, traveled north to the settlement of Port Harrison (modern-day Inukjouac) on the Ungava Peninsula (today Nouveau Québec) on the eastern side of Hudson Bay for a sketching trip. Houston befriended the local Inuit, who had recently come in off the land and had settled in makeshift camps near the Hudson's Bay Company trading posts. Coveting Houston's cigarettes and other scarce commodities, the Inuit brought him in trade small soapstone models similar to those that were made for children out of broken or disused soap-stone lamps.

Moved by the Inuit's extreme poverty and charmed by the models, Houston carried a sampling south to the Canadian Handicrafts Guild in Montreal at the end of the summer, hoping to find a market for them. The carvings sold immediately, and the next summer Houston persuaded the Canadian government to send him north again, where he traveled from settlement to settlement encouraging the Inuit to make salable carvings. The experiment was so successful that two years later the lines outside the Handicrafts Guild for the now annual Inuit carving sale stretched around the block. In 1951, the National Gallery of Canada opened the first of many exhibitions of Inuit carving, and not long after, the work of some of the great early sculptors like Kiurak Ashoona, Usuituk Ipeeli, and Pauta Saila (all of Cape Dorset) and Davidialuk Amittuk and Charlie Sivuarapik (both of Puvirnituk) was exhibited internationally alongside the work of European modernists such as Henry Moore. Before long, art cooperatives subsidized by the government but run by the Inuit with help from non-Native art advisers like Houston, managed the carving—and later the printmaking—opera-tions. At about this time, cooperative associations took root in northern Canada, and the first one to handle Inuit art was founded in 1960 by Father André Steinmann in Puvirnituk (Graburn, 1987; Martijn, 1963; Vallee, 1967). Fueled by the demand for Inuit art in the south, co-ops were an important first step in restoring economic and political autonomy to the Inuit.

A decade after launching Inuit soapstone carving, Houston (by now living in Cape Dorset as the govern ment representative for Baffin Island) repeated the same success story with printmaking. In Cape Dorset, artists from the community submitted drawings to Houston (later to his successor, Terry Ryan, and still later to Inuit art buyers), who in consultation with the trained printmakers at the co-op, purchased those that lent themselves to printmaking and, undoubtedly, those that would appeal to non-Native collectors in the south. Later in the year, Houston and the printmakers would select ten drawings out of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, they had purchased, and these would be transformed into a limited annual edition of Cape Dorset prints. The prints were marketed in metropolitan Canada and the United States and, as was the case with the soapstone sculptures, the demand soon outstripped the supply. Artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak, Pitsiulak Ashoona, Kananginak Pootoogook, and Pudlo Pudlat became household names in the lucrative world of indigenous art collectors. Cape Dorset prints, thanks to worldwide media coverage, are now to be found in museums, art galleries, and private collections around the globe (Garburn, 1987; Houston, 1988).

Cape Dorset's spectacular success stimulated other Inuit communities to take up printmaking. Puvirnituk, Baker Lake (Qamani'tuaq), Pangnirtung, and Holman soon joined in, producing prints by equally competent artists such as Jessie Oonark of Baker Lake and Joe Talirunilik, and Josie Papialuk of Puvirnituk. Of particular note in the spread of printmaking is the print-making process at Puvirnituk, which deviates markedly from that of Cape Dorset. In the Puvirnituk co-op, instead of using trained printmakers to transform artists' drawings into prints, artists are issued their own print blocks and create their images directly on them. This gives the Puvirnituk prints a freshness and immediacy lacking in the more refined, sometimes studied, Cape Dorset prints (Graburn, 2000; Vallee, 1967).

The history of Canadian Inuit so-called tourist art (Graburn, 1976) raises a wealth of issues that touch on the art-making situation, the North generally. First, in a pattern characteristic of the development of indigenous art forms the world over, behind soapstone sculpture and printmaking was the guidance of an intelligent and world representative of the first-world art system. Based on indigenous prototypes though they may be, the formal relationship of both the prints and the sculptures to mid-20th-century modernism is probably no accident. A skilled artist with a trained eye, Houston wielded considerable (some would argue absolute) power as a gatekeeper. Thus, the question of whether Cape Dorset art is Inuit art has been hotly debated by the Inuit, by other indigenous artists throughout the North, and by anthropologists and art historians ever since.

Whatever its influence, the Cape Dorset story raises many issues affecting indigenous artists across the Arctic. First, it demonstrates the difficulties facing indigenous artists who want to market their art from remote bush communities, whether in Alaska, Canada, Siberia, or Greenland. Without Houston's guidance, Cape Dorset art probably would never have gotten off the ground. The obstacles are such that even the most well-connected among them would be defeated by the task. This is one reason why so many serious artists have left the North for metropolitan areas like Anchorage or Montreal. For those who leave to attend art school, it is the critical first step toward entering the world art system. For the artists left behind—and these are still in the majority in Canada though not in Alaska—except in strong art-making communities like Cape Dorset there is little infrastructure to fall back on. The result is that most market their work too cheaply to the slow if steady trickle of outsiders— teachers, health care providers, and construction work-ers—who pass regularly through rural communities. In Alaska, the Alaska State Council on the Arts has made marketing in remote locations a priority and provides support services such as marketing workshops for indigenous artists in rural areas. It is too soon to assess their impact, but the language barrier, the expense of travel, and the problems of organizing a career with such few local resources would seem to stack the odds against them.

For artists choosing to stay in the North and working in traditional media such as ivory, feathers, and sealskin, marketing their work presents another problem. In recent decades, indigenous artists in both the Canadian and American Arctic have been severely impacted by government regulations such as the Migratory Waterfowl Act and the Marine Mammals Protection Act, both of which severely restrict the uses they can make of traditional materials (Becker, 2001). In short, art making is a hard way to earn a living under the best of circumstances, but it is particularly difficult in the Far North. Not surprisingly, those who wish to remain in rural areas often take wage-labor jobs when they are available. This is a common-enough pattern that it is probably safe to suggest that in these communities there is a negative correlation between art making and the availability of wage-labor jobs.

The Cape Dorset case also raises the issue of authenticity, a long-standing concern both for artists and consumers. In Alaska and coastal British Columbia, which host a million or more tourists every summer, gift shops routinely sell copies of Native art mass produced in Indonesia and other parts of Asia where labor is cheap. To some extent, the authenticity of both Saami and Alaska Native art is protected by subsidized programs that provide artists with a sticker guaranteeing the authenticity of their work (Holowell-Zimmer, 2001; Lincoln, 2001). However, this does not solve the problem for gift-shop owners catering to mass tourism. Even under the best of circumstances, Alaska Native artists cannot hope to compete with the mass-produced fakes. To do so would mean lowering the very standards that distinguish them as authentic artists. Realistically, the only possible compromise is for gift-shop owners to cease representing their mass-produced wares as authentic, and for indigenous artists to continue the slow and painful process of making genuine Native art for the small but devoted coterie of consumers—most of whom are locals in any case—willing to pay its deservedly high prices.

Another trend illustrated by the Canadian Inuit case is the problems that stem from the restrictions in subject matter that the nonindigenous consumers impose on indigenous art and artists. As a rule, both soapstone carvings and prints past and present depict a way of life that has long since vanished: hunters harpoon seals instead of using rifles, families travel by dog sled instead of by snow machine, and mothers cook over seal oil lamps in a snow iglus and not on a range or Coleman stove in the prefabricated government-issue houses that have replaced them. This is a past almost as exotic to present-day artists as it is to their consumers. Whereas carvers and printmakers in Houston's day communicated through their art a life they lived or at least remembered, when artists of today sit down to work they draw on the memories of their grandparents, on TV re-runs, and on the same glossy exhibition catalogs found on the coffee tables of art collectors. If their work sometimes falls flat, it is unnecessary to look any farther than this simple truth for an explanation.

The obligation to create an art about life in the past is by no means confined to soapstone sculpture or printmaking. In Alaska, serious social problems such as drug and alcohol abuse are rarely explored through art. Of today's well-known artists, only Ronald Senungetuk (Inupiaq), Jack Abraham (Central Yup'ik), and Susie Silook (Siberian Yupik) have openly dealt with social issues in their work. The simple truth is that it is much easier to sell what one artist referred to as "kayak-culture art" than to attract buyers for works that wrestle with painful realities.

On the brighter side, the hard-fought ethnic awareness of the 1960s has not been without its gains for indigenous artists. The recent repatriation laws in the United States and Canada have shifted the balance of power between indigenous peoples and the governments that have held them hostage in the past. And in 2001, it is a rare museum exhibition about the art of the Arctic that does not engage the appropriate artists in the process. Then, too, indigenous art has achieved a greater political presence in recent years. In 1970, 30

years ago, Enchanted Owl, a print by Keojuak Ashevak, was selected for use as a Canadian postage stamp (Blodgett, 1985). For those whose glass was half empty, the honor was dampened by the irony of Canada's choice to pay homage to the art of a people whose needs they had long ignored; for those whose glass was half full, this appropriation and the many that have followed it are the first halting steps toward recognizing northern indigenous peoples as participants in the real world of land claims, subsistence battles, and repatriation negotiations, not a false present in which caribou are still felled with stone-tipped arrows.

Molly Lee

See also Aron from Kangeq; Bladder Ceremony; Clothing; Cooperatives; Dorset Culture; Handicrafts/Tourist Art; Inuit Art Foundation; Ipiutak Culture; Ivory Carving; Kenojuak; Masks; Norton Culture; Old Bering Sea Culture; Rink, Hinrich Johannes; Scrimshaw; Shamanism; Thule Culture

Further Reading

Becker, Chuck, Use of Wildlife in Arts and Crafts: An Overview of Federal Laws and Regulations by the US Fish & Wildlife Service, unpublished paper (available from the Alaska Export Assistance Center, US Commercial Service, Alaska), 2001 Black, Lydia T., Aleut Art, Anchorage: Aleut/Pribilof Native

Association, 1982 Blodgett, Jean, Kenojuak, Toronto: Firefly Books, 1985 Burnham, Dorothy, To Please the Caribou, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995 Collins Jr., Henry B., Archaeology of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, Washington, District of Columbia: Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 96(1), 1937 Duncan, Kate C., Northern Athapaskan Art: A Beadwork

Tradition, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989 Fienup-Riordan, Ann, The Living Tradition of Yup 'ik Masks: Agayuliyararput: Our Way of Making Prayer, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998 Goldwater, Robert, Primitivism in Modern Art, Cambridge,

Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1986 Graburn, Nelson H.H., Ethnic and Tourist Arts, Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1976 "The discovery of inuit Art: James Houston—animateur." Inuit

Art Quarterly, 2(2) (1987): 3-4 "Canadian Inuit Art and Co-ops." Museum Anthropology, 24(1)

Hollowell-Zimmer, Julie, "Intellectual property protection for Alaska Native arts." Cultural Survival Quarterly, 24(4)

Houston, Alma, Inuit Art: An Anthology, Winnipeg, Manitoba:

Watson & Dwyer, 1988 Kaalund, Bodil, The Art of Greenland, translated by Kenneth

Tindall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983 Kihlberg, Kurt, Giehta Dâidu (The Great Book of Saami Handicrafts), Rosvik, Sweden: Forlagshuset Nordkalotten, 1999

Larsen, Helge E. & Froelich Rainey, "Ipiutak and the Arctic whale hunting culture." Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, 42 (1948)

Lee, Molly, "Objects of Knowledge: The Communicative Dimension of Baleen Baskets." In Native American Basketry: A Living Legacy, edited by Frank W. Porter, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1989, pp. 319-334 (Reprinted from Etudes/Inuit/Studies, 9(1) (1985): 163-182) Maquet, Jacques, Introduction to Aesthetic Anthropology,

Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1971 Martijn, Charles A. "Canadian Eskimo carving in historical perspective." Anthropos, 59 (1963): 549-596 McCartney, Allen P.(editor), Thule Eskimo Culture: An Anthropological Retrospective" Archaeological Survey of Canada, 8 0317-2244 (Mercury Series 0316-1854), Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1979 McGhee, Robert, Ancient People of the Arctic, Vancouver:

University of British Columbia Press, 1996 Mitlyanskaya, Tamara, B., Khudozhniki Chukotki (The Artists of Chukotka), Moscow: Izobrazitel'noe Iskusstvo, 1976 Molk, Inga-Maria, Sami Cultural Heritage, Jokkmokk, Sweden: Ajtte, Swedish Mountain and Sami Museum, 1997 Nelson, Edward W., "The Eskimo about Bering Strait." 18th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology for the Years 1896-1897, 1899, pp. 3-518 Phillips, Ruth B., Trading Identities, Seattle: University of

Washington Press, 1998 Ray, Dorothy Jean, Eskimo Art: Tradition and Innovation in North Alaska, Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1977

-, Aleut and Eskimo Art: Tradition and Innovation in

South Alaska, Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 1981 "Happy Jack: King of the Eskimo Ivory Carvers." American

Indian Art, 10(1) (1984): 32-47, 77 Vallee, Frank G., Povungnetuk and its Co-operative, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Northern Coordination and Research Center, NCRC-67-2, 1967

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