Contemporary Inuit art and ancient narration/ folklores of Inuit’s: A comparative study

The paper is a comparative study of the journey from the past till the present of the indigenous people of Northern region of Canada (Inuit). Their lifestyle from ancient to contemporary period can be seen in their artifacts, objects and sculptures. A comparative study is necessary because the past often helps to understand the present. The life of the people their artifacts are a link to understand their roots, identity and historically handed down artistic influences

The oral history and narration is transmitted through the elders or the people who are living in related community for long time and listening to the folk lore’s , taboos and other non-written stories which are continuously been saved for next generations through oral narrative tradition.

Every community or religion has their own oral fantasies, narrations, beliefs and taboos to pass on the knowledge to the future generations. This is how the oral history transmits through its own people and is passed on to the future and is kept alive for posterity.

Inuit people having the belief of Shamans, who are the healers and can, change themselves physically in different forms. Inuit are used to worship their Sea Goddess called ‘Sedna’ who provides food to people, if sometimes she gets angry, she stop providing food to Inuit people which is cause of starving in Inuit area because their food and eatables are only comes out from sea mammals or hunting. Shaman is only way to connect Inuit people from their Sea Goddess. He goes out to the sea world of ‘Sedna’ to make her cheer after combing and braiding her hair. These beliefs are carved by the Inuit people in their art. The other beliefs, fantasies and myths can also be seen in their contemporary art work.

This paper will discuss the historical facts of different beliefs and fantasies of Inuit people in the contemporary age. Many new trends have been  introduced, some old traditions lost in the last three centuries but the cultural identity has largely been preserved through language family and cultural laws, rituals, oral history and of course their art.        

Inuits live in Northern regions of Canada, and their ancestors have inhabited the north for over four thousand years. Their main profession is hunting and preparing handicrafts. They have gradually moved from animism to Catholicism. But the rich culture and oral traditions are still alive in form of contemporary art which is prominent.

The oral history and narration is transmitted through the elders or people who are living in their related community for long time and listening to the folklores, taboos, and other non-written stories which are continuously been saved for next generations through oral narrative tradition. Inuit took these themes into their artworks and artistically, materially explored traditional social life and customs, spiritual beliefs and mythology, historical moments and personal experiences. Their art celebrates their heritage while the Inuits belong to our Modern world.

They have several stories and taboos which describes their customs, rituals and fantasies. Inuit people believe in “Shaman” who are “healer” to them and can change themselves physically in different forms. [Fig.1]

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Fig.1. Pitsiulak, Lipa
(Pangnirtung, Qikiqtaaluk region, Nunavut)
Sea Spirit
  1980

 

 

For them a Shaman is a mediator or communicator between their god and the people. Their deity is “Sedna”, the Sea Goddess [half female and half fish] who lives under water and provides food to Inuit. Sedan is naturally related to the lifestyle of Inuits who obtain food from sea mammals or hunting. If Sedna is displeased or unhappy, she makes Inuit people starve due to lack of sea mammals in the sea. According to Inuit custom only a “Shaman” can go under water world of Sedna and make her happy by combing and braiding her hair. [Fig.2]

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Fig. 2. Ungalaq, Natar
(Igloolik, Qikiqtaaluk/Baffin region, Nunavut)
Sedna with a Hairbrush
  1985
Grey stone, dog fur, and caribou bone / 18 x 21.5 x 20 cm

 

 

The figure shows Sedna holding a comb in her hand with tangled hair in very angry expressions. This sculpture reveals this particular oral history and fantasies of Inuits.

In another painting, people are playing drums near the sea shore and showing a competition between Shamans. Drumming was an important part of both social gatherings and ritual ceremonies. They would get best drummer and singers. The best Shaman in the competition was honored by the leaders.[Fig.3]

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Fig. 3. Alikatuktuk, Thomasie
(Pangnirtung, Qikiqtaaluk/Baffin region, Nunavut)
My Great Grandmother Was a Shaman  1992
Stencil on wove paper
48.5 x 66.3 cm

 

These people also had some taboos and these taboos are also presented in their art. In the sculpture ‘The aurora borealis decapitating a young man’ showing particular taboo which was a tale of three young men. One of them who was whistling in the presence of Northern light, but whistling is punishable. When young man’s friend saw this his head was carried off to be used as a football by the twisting lights. [Fig.4]

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Fig.4. Amittu, Davidialuk Alasua
(Puvirnituq, Nunavik region, Quebec)
The Aurora Borealis Decapitating a Young Man
  c.1965
Dark green stone / 23.2 x 29 x 14 cm

 

A famous story of Lumaaq which is still retold to Inuit children today. A blind boy who lived with his mother and sister. His mother was always bias against him and would not give him food or care. Once she lied to him and tried to hunt a polar bear without informing him because of his blindness, she told him that he is hunting a dog. But it was not dog it was a bear which was a big risk to his life. But his mother never bothered. After that once god became kind to him and sent a bird (Loon) to repair his eyesight by diving three times into sea. Loon held him from his neck. He got his eyesight back he didn’t disclose this to his mother and thought to teach her a lesson against her bias against him. He took mother to hunt fish in sea shore in whaling season, but without telling her truth he tied her to the line of a harpoon and threw her into the sea full of whales. [Fig.5]

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Fig.5. Amarualik, Paulusi Iqiqu
(Puvirnituq, Nunavik region, Quebec)
The Lumaaq Story 1965    

Grey-black stone / 10.9 x 31

 

The sculpture shows the last part of the story. But similarly in sculpture no.6 showing that part of story when Lumaaq getting back his eyesight with help of Loon, the bird. [Fig.6]

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Fig.6. Sharky, Toonoo
(Cape Dorset, Qikiqtaaluk/Baffin region, Nunavut)
The Legend of the Blind Boy
,1998
Green stone, brown stone, walrus ivory and baleen inlay / 47 x 57 x 15 cm

 

These objects are evidences of presence of traditions and fantasies of Inuits.

 

Author::
Indra vats
Asst. Curator (Education)
National Museum, Research Scholar
National Museum Institute
New Delhi

References:

  1. ‘Sanaugavut, Inuit art from The Canadian Arctic’, An exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa and the National Museum and the National Museum Institute, New Delhi. At the National Museum, New Delhi, September 27, 2010 to January 2, 2011.
  2. Exhibition text prepared for National Museum and National Museum Docent training by Christine Lalonde, Associate Curator of Indigenous art, NGC.
  3. Catalogue of ‘Sanaugavut, Inuit art from The Canadian Arctic’.