Sunday with Zin: Inuit Culture on Cloth

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik

Hello, I am Zin, and this week we will go to the Arctic to cool off in the middle of the hot summer, thanks to the “Culture on Cloth” Inuit wall hanging exhibit is now at the Portland Public Library!

Judith Varney Burch loves Inuit art! And she collects wall hangings, sculptures, and prints! She is not an artist or art historian (her degree is in Sociology) but she has been working at the Smithsonian as a Research Collaborator, and now she has opened the Arctic Inuit Art gallery in Charlottesville, VA to bring these items to more people! And she has been all over the world, from Mexico to India to Russia to Japan to just about everywhere, touring with various items from her collection and speaking about the people who make them!

And last week she came to the Portland Public Library! A selection of wall hangings, and a few sculptures and prints, is on display for the rest of the summer! You can see more art from Nunavut – prints, carvings, as well as the wall hangings – on her website!

She focused on the wall hangings done by the women of Baker Lake in Nunavut, the newest Canadian territory created in 1999 out of the Northwest Territories. They create these wall hangings from boiled wool that is shipped in, because nothing NOTHING grows in the Arctic Circle (except the Arctic Willow, symbol of Strength and Suppleness) so they have never had much beyond skins to work with! But they have been sewing clever items like the amauti, a coat with a place for a child on the back, for a long long time, so now they are creating art!

One of the art-related things she said was about the apparent lack of perspective and point of view in the wall hangings and prints! She learned from anthropologist Edmund Carpenter that this is because it was a pre-literate society! I am not sure why perspective in art is linked to reading, but that is was he says in the Seeing in the Round chapter of his book, Oh, What A Blow That Phantom Gave Me!:

To depict a whole object on a flat surface, literate man employs three-dimensional perspective: he shows only that surface visible from a single position at a single moment. In short, he fails.
In contrast, native artists of British Columbia represented a bear, say, in full face & profile, from back, above & below, from within & without, all simultaneously. By an extraordinary mixture of convention & realism, these butcher-draftsmen skinned & boned, even removed the entrails, to construct a new being, on a flat surface, that retained every significant element of the whole creature.

To be honest (and I try to be always as much as possible) I thought her talk was a little bit disjointed, jumping from Nunavut to her travels to a piece of art to building an igloo (it took the man 45 minutes!) to the Smithsonian to Nunavut again and around again, I wish it had been better organized because there was some wonderful information there! Like, there is a concentrated effort to keep the culture alive in the next generation! And she talks to the women who did these hangings by internet! Facebook in the Arctic Circle! I think that is hilarious! But it was wonderful anyway, and a lot of the nuggets were wonderful! And the art was beautiful! It was not meant to be an academic lecture after all! And she is very nice, she answered an emailed question I had within minutes! Thank you again, Ms. Burch!

The pictures you can find on the website links above do not really do the wall hangings justice; they are beautiful! The one above was my favorite of the ones I saw because it used a lot of shading in the stitches, from colors to white and back. Here is the artist bio of that piece from the UVA Arctic Culture Forum website:

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik
Born and raised on the land, Mary Yuusipik settled permanently in Baker Lake around 1960 when her son started school. She learned to sew from her mother, the famous Jessie Oonark, who also encouraged her to make wall hangings. For inspiration she recalls the stories that her grandmother used to tell her as a child. Although Mary Yuusipik is mostly known for her wall hangings, she is also a recognised carver and occasionally does graphic art.

Most of the Inuit were nomads (she told us the story of Irene Avaalaaqiaq, one of the most famous Baker Lake artists, raised by her grandparents, who was a young teenager before she realized there were other people in the world!) who were pretty much forced to move to Baker Lake to avoid starvation as they found it harder and harder to survive on hunting! That is so sad! But now they have houses and the Internet! I would like to know how they feel about that, if they would rather go back to nomading!

The art honors their heritage, and the legends they have told for centuries, and I am very happy to have seen it! I will visit it again every time I go to the library in the next six weeks!

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