Indigenous peoples of the Arctic have been making art for thousands of years. In this exhibit, we will look at an ancient artifact fashioned by unknown hands, the work of the first generation of Inuit artists, and two contemporary Inuit artists whose work has become part of the international art world.
The Inuit artist Pitseolak Ashoona was born in a skin tent between 1904 and 1908 while her family was making a spring trek from Salluit, in the Nunavik region of Arctic Québec, to the south coast of Baffin Island (Qikiqtaaluk), during an era when Europeans still had relatively little impact on the far north and when the Inuit still lived on the land as semi-nomadic subsistence hunters and trappers.
Contemporary Indigenous (Aboriginal) art is that which has been produced by Indigenous peoples between around 1945 up to the present. Since that time, two major schools of Aboriginal art have dominated the contemporary scene in Canada: West Coast Aboriginal art and the Woodlands school of Legend Painters.
The totem pole (also known as a monumental pole) is a tall structure carved out of cedar wood, created by Northwest Coast Indigenous peoples to serve variously as a signboard, genealogical record and memorial. Some well-known carvers include Mungo Martin, Charles Edenshaw, Henry Hunt, Richard Hunt and Stanley Hunt.
Ookpik, which means “snowy owl” or “Arctic owl” in Inuktitut, is the name of one of the most popular of Inuit handicrafts, a souvenir sealskin owl with a large head and big eyes. In the 1960s, Ookpik became a popular national symbol after the federal government chose it to represent Canada at the 1963 trade fair in Philadelphia. Today, Ookpik is less popular among consumers, but it still holds significance for some Inuit artists and toy collectors.
More than 3,000 years ago, Indigenous peoples of the coast of British Columbia (and adjacent areas of Washington State and southeastern Alaska) such as the Haida and Kwakwaka'wakw developed artistic traditions that are heralded throughout the world for their imaginative and stylistic qualities.
The history of Indigenous (Aboriginal) art in Canada begins sometime during the last Ice Age between 80,000 and 12,000 years ago. To date, however, the oldest surviving artworks (excluding finely crafted, aesthetically significant stone tools) are datable to no earlier than 5,000 years ago.
The history of Inuit cultures and the art of the various regions and times can only be understood if the myth of a homogeneous Inuit culture is discarded altogether. Though it has not been possible to determine the exact origin(s) of the Inuit, nor of the various Inuit cultures, five distinct cultures have been established in the Canadian area: Pre-Dorset , Dorset , Thule, Historic and Contemporary.