Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Stones, Bones and Stitches: Storytelling Through Inuit Art

When I was growing up, the only art I could relate to was representational. Anything abstract,allegorical or symbolic was beyond my comfort level and outside my understanding. I had a strong preference for art that was not only classic but also "beautiful", whether Michaelangelo's clean, gorgeous sculptures or the luxurious, aristocratic portraits of Gainsborough. I definitely did not "get" inuit art until at least my 30s. (When I say "get" I mean not "understand" but "see the beauty in".) Today's kids are lucky--this skillfully written and photographed book is, I think, a matchless introduction to a form of art which is perhaps not immediately accessible to those of us outside the inuit culture.

Shelley Falconer and Shawna White are curators at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. They have selected six artists and eight works of art to explore, from sculpture to prints to textile art. I think the sculptures have the strongest presence here. Look, for example, at The Migration by Joe Talirunili. This is one of a series of sculptures the artist has created out of his childhood experience of moving from one camp to the next with his family as the seasons changed. These trips were arduous and terrifying: in one, forty of his family members drowned when the boat was destroyed; in another, the trip lasted so long that "Joe recalls his mother saying that they might have to eat one another because they were so hungry!". The haunting faces in the sculpture capture the memory of the family crammed in together, survival at stake. To me, this sculpture converges the historic and cultural experience of inuit life on the land with a larger, mythic story. The text, which describes Joe's childhood journeys, his family life, and details about the construction of the boat and clothing seen in the sculpture add to our experience of Joe's art.

All the art showcased in Stones, Bones and Stitches--and it is indeed varied, considering it is such a select sample--is given plenty of context. Even the information on the art materials is fascinating. For example, we learn that many inuit sculptors quarry their own stone, an involved and dangerous process. And that whalebone must be at least 50 to 100 years old before a sculptor can work with it (fresh whalebone is too oily and smelly). We are told stories of demonic spirits and shamans who travel to the moon. We see the past and present come together. A rich book that succeeds in that difficult enterprise--communicating between cultures.

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