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Inuit art and culture

Bridging the North and south

Ocean Endeavour, Davis Strait (on board).

Last summer, I had the privilege, along with my wife Hazel and son Roman, of touring the Heart of the Arctic on board the Ocean Endeavour with Adventure Canada. Aside from my duties as a lecturer on the ship, we met with artists, elders, community leaders, and lots of children. The Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) has a long history with Adventure Canada, and as Director & CEO of the Gallery, I had been invited to participate as one of the arts and culture specialists on board. My wife Hazel, a town planner and new urbanist author, was commissioned to blog about each community we visited as well. Over the course of the two-week expedition, we visited several Inuit and Greenland communities, including Kuujuaq and Kangiqsujuaq in Nunavik, Cape Dorset and Kimmirut in Nunavut, and Nuuk and Kangerlussuaq in Greenland.

Qavavau Manumie works over an art grid in Cape Dorset.
Qavavau Manumie works over an art grid in Cape Dorset.

With the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art in the world, the WAG has been a longstanding partner with the North and a champion of Inuit art and culture. An unparalleled record of exhibitions, publications, and research supports the Gallery’s collection of over 13,000 carvings, drawings, prints, textiles, and new media. The Gallery began collecting Inuit art in the 1950s when this art form was largely unknown in Canada’s south. To celebrate the art and to honour the people who have created these works, the WAG is building an Inuit Art Centre, the first of its kind in the world, with plans to break ground in 2017.

On board the Ocean Endeavour, I gave several talks about Inuit art, as well as on the history of the WAG’s Inuit collection, and the development of the Inuit Art Centre. Of course the firsthand opportunity passengers had visiting several Inuit communities and artists during the expedition was the best way to gain an understanding and appreciation of the art. I was also able to share the architectural plans for the Centre with passengers. It was an exhilarating experience to be traversing the waters and terrain of the Arctic — and seeing again the images that inspired the architects designing the Centre.

Itilleq, Greenland. © Stephen Borys (3)
Itilleq, Greenland.
© Stephen Borys (3)

One of the highlights of the Heart of the Arctic expedition for me was seeing the Arctic and the Inuit culture through the eyes of a child — in this instance, my 10-year-old son, Roman.  In each of the communities we visited, Roman met kids his age and learned more about their life and adventures in the North.

Only a handful of Canadians will ever have the opportunity to see the land of the Inuit and the context for their incredible art making enterprise. And that’s perhaps why Canada’s Inuit Art Centre is so important to our understanding of the Inuit. While textbooks, maps, and videos play an important role in a child’s education about the North and Indigenous cultures, a trip to the Centre will bring students face to face with Inuit art and artists.

With the latest communications technology, we can connect a classroom in Iqaluit with one in Winnipeg where kids can watch a carver working in Baker Lake or listen to stories being told by an Elder from Arviat.

Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavour was our pathway into the Arctic. While you can fly into many of the Inuit and Greenland communities today, the opportunity to approach these places by ship was a completely different experience.  Our ship was much larger than the hunting and fishing vessels used by Inuit over the centuries, but coming within reach of these communities (with the aid of Zodiac watercraft) we were still able to get a sense of the Inuit reliance on and respect for the bodies of water that encompass the North.

Not unlike the ship we were on, the Inuit Art Centre is a bridge, enabling peoples from northern and southern communities to meet, learn, and work together. It will also act as a cultural hub promoting economic development and tourism. The link between North and South is critical to the Centre’s success; in fact, the connection is at the heart of this project. This will be a facility for exhibitions and programs, research and learning, studio practice and art making. It will also serve as both conduit and gathering place, enabling peoples from the North and South to meet, learn, and work together.

Art is a dynamic force in the world capable of imparting ideas and perspectives, and shaping public thought. In a similar way, the Inuit Art Centre will be much more than a repository for the WAG’s celebrated collection of Inuit art. It will be a transformative place led by the images and stories from the art, people, and land. Linking northern and southern Canada is at the heart of the Centre’s mission where art is a vehicle for artistic, educational, and economic development.

To read Hazel’s daily accounts, animated with wonderful images of the Arctic, visit www.placemakers.com/tag/heart-of-the-arctic-series/.

Dr. Stephen Borys
Director & CEO, Winnipeg Art Gallery