Top Five Questions

21 Apr

Modern Life in the Arctic - a Tim Hortons in Iqaluit. Photo courtesy of Canadian Arctic Producers.

A few months ago, southern misconceptions about Canada’s Arctic got quite a lot of press, especially due to a recent poll that found, among other things, that 74% of respondents believed that penguins might live in the North. Similar findings were made in a poll conducted by the Vancouver Aquarium. If you read our daily Arctic animal facts in March, you’ll know that penguins only live in the southern hemisphere (not counting zoos, of course). However, the reality of life in the Arctic – especially modern life – is often obscurely represented to those who live outside of the area.

Much of what we consistently hear about the Arctic in the news from public figures or in other media is about climate change, Arctic sovereignty and natural resources. These are all important issues, but it is often hard to parse them out effectively: for example, what does climate change really mean to Arctic communities? It’s easy to talk about warming temperatures, but it’s not as easy to understand what that means for local people or sometimes how it is expressed in artwork.

At MIA, we encounter many visitor’s questions about not only the Arctic but also Inuit and the art they produce everyday. As the Educational Coordinator, I really appreciate these opportunities to help people learn more and better appreciate the reality of Inuit art. So, in that spirit, here are the top five things people ask me:

  • Who are Inuit? Inuit are Aboriginal inhabitants of the Arctic areas of Canada, Greenland, Alaska and the eastern portion of Russia (though they are not the only Aboriginal inhabitants of these areas). Inuit are culturally and linguistically distinct from First Nations peoples. Inuit simply means “the people” in Inuktitut, the language spoken by many Inuit.
  • Are Inuit still in the Arctic? Are they still making art? Yes, absolutely. Approximately 50,000 Inuit live in communities across the Arctic where they lead very modern lives with electricity, running water and the internet. Inuit also live throughout southern Canada. The Arctic currently has the highest concentration of artists in Canada.
  • Where does the material used in the art come from? It depends on the form of the art. Many of the materials used in printmaking and to make drawings are brought into the Arctic, including paper and ink. Stone is often locally mined, often by the artists themselves – this accounts for the distinct regional varieties of stone in carvings. Inuit carvers living in southern Canada often import materials, either from the Arctic or elsewhere. Caribou shed their antlers every year and are also part of traditional Inuit diets, so their supply is abundant. Muskoxen, walrus, seals and whales are also important food sources for Inuit, so their raw materials are available as a result of hunting. Food is too precious a resource in the Arctic to waste, so no animal is ever killed specifically for art-making materials. Wall hangings are made using imported materials like duffel and embroidery thread and ceramics are made with imported clay.
  • What tools are used to make the art? Again, it depends on the art form. Carvings can be made by using either hand tools (such as rasps and files) or power tools – either way, the labour needed to produce a carving is intense. Different printmaking techniques require different materials, such as metal plates, barrens and presses. Ceramic production requires specialized equipment, like a kiln.
  • What kind of stone are the sculptures made out of? The stones used to make carvings differ depending on the community where the carving was made. Sculptures from southern Baffin Island are often made out of serpentine, while sculptures from Sanikiluaq are often made from argillite. Soapstone, the material most people associate with Inuit carvings, is not widely available in every area of the Arctic and is most prevalent in Nunavik.

I hope that answers some of your biggest questions about Inuit art – if you have others, feel free to leave them in the comments and I will be happy to answer.

Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Educational Coordinator

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