Inuit art has always had a profound impact on my aesthetics, almost as much as Japanese art. The humor, minimalism, and abstraction in form combine in an original way. On a recent visit to the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal, I had the memorable experience of viewing perhaps the best collection of Inuit art in the world.
What is not well known is that the Canadian printmaker, James Houston, who had trained in Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock printing, brought his technical skills to Cape Dorset in 1957 to encourage local Inuit stone carvers to learn etching, engraving, lithography and silkscreen printing to support their poverty-stricken communities. Although the Inuit adopted the techniques from the Japanese, they radically transformed the art by capturing shamanistic rituals and cultural myths. The adaptation of technique with Inuit imagery renders the source of the techniques virtually unrecognizable. Inuit art and ukiyo-e, to this viewer, seem as far apart as two artistic styles can be yet they intersected through the mid-century efforts and importation of knowledge from Houston.
Inuit sculpture, commonly made of whalebone, serpentine or soapstone, has deep levels of symbolism derived from shamanistic rituals. One of my favorite sculptures in the gallery, “Drum Beater”, is carved by the male sculptor, Karoo Ashevak (1940-1974), from whalebone and suggests a fascination with rituals of death. Shamans guide the departed spirit to a new life, through dance, beating the drum, and often while wearing masks. The face on the figure is not a human face, but suggestive of a skull or spirit straddling between the world of the living and the world of the dead, the world of humans and the world of animals. Transfixed by the departed’s spirit or perhaps in a trance, the shaman is calling upon the forces of nature to hear the community. The execution of this whalebone sculpture reveals not only a master of the macabre, as in much of Inuit art, but also a humorist’s bold and confident flourish.
And perhaps the most fascinating printmaker among the Inuit is the illustrious woman printmaker Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013). Part of Houston’s Cape Dorset guild, these printmakers became world renowned for their vivid, modernistic prints of extraordinary form and composition. Kenojuak Ashevak “Illustrious Owl,” selected as a symbol for Canada and memorialized on a postage stamp, epitomizes the extraordinary line and imagery of the Inuit. More attention to this sensational art is needed!