Inuit Art celebrates the life and history of the indigenous Inuit people, who live in the Artic regions of Eastern Canada. The art of the Inuit people provides a visual history of their way of life, and honors the skill and resourcefulness of their ancestors, who adapted to living in one of the harshest climates on earth.
Early Cultural History
The Inuit are actually but one of three separate cultures inhabiting today's arctic regions. In addition, there are the Yupik, and the Inupiat people. The word Eskimo, these days considered a pejorative term, is the only term that commonly refers to the people of all three cultures.
The history of the Eskimo people is commonly categorized as three eras, the Pre-Dorset, the Dorset, and the Inuit. The Pre-Dorset culture, known as the Thule people, occupied the Alaskan arctic regions prior to 500 BC. They originally came from Siberia across the Bering Strait some 4000 years ago.
Following the Pre-Dorset, the Dorset period lasted from 500 BC until 1500 AD. The people of the Dorset era are considered to be the first indigenous Canadian arctic people. They occupied the territory from Coronation Gulf to the bottom of Newfoundland, and including the west coast of Greenland. The artistic evidence appears to suggest, though, that they may have been an entirely different culture from the Thule people, who eventually migrated East to become the ancestors of today's Inuit people.
White Man's Influence
In the 16th century, by the time the White man arrived in the arctic, the climate began to cool, and the whales became fewer. The Thule culture began to disappear, and the Inuit culture began to emerge.
Until roughly 1939, the Inuit people were traditionally nomadic hunters who moved from one seasonal camp to another. In 1939, however, a court decision declared the Inuit people in Canada to be a federal government responsibility. This ruling essentially transformed their nomadic culture into a more sedentary one. The process even often involved forced relocation into more 'manageable' communities, where individuals were assigned serial numbers as their mandated identification.
Cultural Artistic Differences
Pre-Dorset artifacts are generally masculine and utilitarian in nature, often consisting, for example, in artistically designed tools and weapons. Dorset art, though, while remaining masculine oriented, appears to have taken on a more ritualistic purpose. Images of bears and falcons are common, and were possibly intended to be used in shamanistic and religious rituals.
But the artifacts attributed to the Thule people are decidedly different from the Dorset finds. Thule artifacts are almost always of feminine images and connotations, such as the small female figurines, combs, thimbles, and needle cases that have been found. And these female figurines are almost always faceless, as opposed to the Dorset figurines, which had very detailed, and intricately carved, masculine faces.
Inuit Art consists mostly of symbolic replicas of the animals they hunted. Powerful polar bears, sleek seals, swift caribou, wolves, and owls are commonly found in Inuit sculpture and drawings.
Inuit Art Loses the Magic
But by the beginning of 19th century, much Inuit art began to be produced specifically for trade with the European whalers and explorers. Though often even more exquisite, it became a kind of 'souvenir art'. By the early 20th century, Inuit art had pretty much lost all of its magical and shamanistic significance.
Modern-day Inuit Art
Most Inuit art consisted of bone and soapstone sculptural carvings. However, since the 1950s, do in large part to a Toronto artist named James Houston, Inuit printmaking art has become quite popular, too.
Much Inuit printmaking displays beautifully executed geometric designs. Inuit legends tell of the spiritual forces that are present in the world. Many of the Inuit myths and legends are about how humans and other living beings are all connected in this powerful universe. The stories and the spirits they describe continue to be the inspiration for today's Inuit artists.