Arts & Culture » Art Review

The Myth of Authenticity




at the Field Museum of Natural

History, through August 15


at Orca Aart Gallery, through August 31

Each of us comes to art with our own prejudices, some personal, some based on cultural assumptions. For me it's fortunate that I first encountered contemporary Inuit art without knowing how it came into being. ("Inuit" is the word "Eskimos" use to name themselves; it means "the people").

Just after World War II the Canadian government resettled the Inuit into a few communities, forcing most of them to abandon their nomadic ways. In 1948 a young white Canadian artist, James Houston, was impressed by some of their small carvings and mounted a show in Montreal; it was a huge success. He and others encouraged the Inuit to make larger works entirely for export as a new means of livelihood.

Works in various media emerged, but most prominent were stone sculptures, with dimensions on the order of a foot, of a sort that had not existed before. Inuit sculptures had been much smaller, and were generally carved out of wood, ivory, or bone: they needed to be light enough for these nomads to carry. Lamps were generally the only things made of stone, though there are some huge stone faces carved on cliffs in northern Quebec. So the new works were clearly designed for the demands of the art market.

Most admirers of the art and culture of indigenous non-Western peoples harbor some version of an authenticity myth. We think of such peoples as living in harmony with each other and with the land, and of their art as arising out of that rare balance. As a consequence the art made before contact with the West is most prized, since it is "pure" and unique, the product of a culture totally unlike ours. And this prejudice is to some extent confirmed by history--the introduction of Western techniques and perspectives has tended to dilute the uniqueness and power of, for example, Indian and Persian art. So one might anticipate that contemporary Inuit stone sculpture would be decorative at best.

All such preconceptions are destroyed, however, by two shows of post-1948 Inuit art, "Masters of the Arctic" at the Field Museum and "Masterworks of the Arctic" at Orca Aart Gallery. Both contain a variety of objects--the Field show includes colorful costumes, some fine baskets, and a number of prints--but the majority of works in each, mostly from Canada's Northwest Territories, are stone sculptures; and the best of these are the strongest works. They seem about to spring to life, vividly suggestive of motion and even sound; their often-unexpected shapes make viewing a perceptual adventure; and a few have startlingly beautiful asymmetries.

In Philip Pitseolak's Awakening Bear (all works are in the Field show unless noted), of light tan marble, the bear is just starting to rise. Though its front is higher than its rear, the hind legs are not fully extended, and as one's eye moves from front to back one senses not only his motion but that this is a form still in the process of becoming. Nuna Parr's Narwhal Rising depicts this sea mammal almost upright, its single long tusk pointing up, its tail and flippers creating a perfect balance of twists and curves, imitating the twisting spiral pattern of the tusk. An even more amazing balance is created in Parr's Watchful Walrus. Though its bottom part is much thicker than its upper, as one walks around the sculpture it seems almost classically balanced, as if every part were equal in importance. Partly because the white tusks call attention to the head, partly because the stone of the rear seems a bit darker, which deemphasizes its bulk, and partly because of the way the folds of the skin lend rhythm to that bulk, Watchful Walrus presents an image of perfect repose.

Musk Ox, by Kananginak Pootoogook (at Orca), presents a picture of dynamic tension. The musk ox's thick, hairy coat is represented by grooves cut in the stone, a convention that can also be seen at the Field. Here the grooves are irregular, curved, not all parallel to each other, and swept backward, suggesting a strong wind. Indeed, the massive animal is also leaning--one side is sloped, the other vertical--as if bracing itself against the wind, against an unseen, and unseeable, force of nature.

Often the patterns in or grain of the stone contribute to a work's effect. The dark serpentine of Narwhal Rising is broken by irregular streaks of tan, whose patterns suggest waves on the surface of the sea. In Nowdla Noah's Seal (at Orca), the jagged edges of the flippers and the folds in the skin seem to echo each other, while the tan grain of the dark green serpentine creates far less regular patterns. In this and other works, the stone's grain seems in a different visual category than the shapes of the animal or human body, whose forms are more symmetrical and obviously ordered. The vivid grain has a further effect: it reminds us that while the stone may be an image of a thing in nature, it is itself an object of nature. Rather than being used only as a smooth, transparent conveyor of forms, as marble might be in Western sculpture, the Inuit stone is also being used for itself.

A number of works make this duality even more dramatic by combining stone, used to represent flesh, with other materials that represent themselves: the tusk in Narwhal Rising is made out of actual ivory. At Orca, Simeonie Killiktee's Bird With Nest shows a simple bird on a flat rock base; next to the bird is a nest made of actual musk-ox fur with three small yellow eggs within. Dancing for Spirit, by Mungitok Killipalik (also at Orca), shows a figure with raised arms; each arm clasps real bird wings fastened together.

This collapse of representational illusionism--the use of an actual instead of a sculpted wing--suggests a more direct relationship between the artwork and the natural environment. Like the use of the stone's grain, the use of actual fur and feathers places these works halfway between representational objects and objects of nature. And indeed, the publicity for and subtitle of the Field exhibit--"Art in the Service of the Earth"--and the videos on view there emphasize the show's ecological correctness.

There is in fact much of interest in the way the relationship between humans and animals is represented. In Orca's Hunter and Bird, by Shortee Killiktee, a bird of prey perches above a hunter; their heads are similar in size, and both look resolutely forward. Both figures are hunters, this work asserts; a human is simply another kind of animal.

Several works show men struggling with animals. In Bear and Man, by Mathew Aqigaaq, the bear is larger and appears to have the upper hand, but the man's bright knife between them, which contrasts with the black basalt, gives man mastery. The bear's and man's similarly schematic eyes and faces suggest a commonality as well. In Man With Narwhal, by Qavaroak Tunnillie, an upright man grasps a narwhal with its back to him. The man's head tilts back while the narwhal's curves forward; its single tusk points downward. But the line of the tusk is almost parallel with the man's face; they seem welded together, a single unit. Other pieces showing animals hunting other animals also suggest a commonality between hunter and hunted. In My Seal, by Tunnillie, a bear strides over a vanquished seal on its back. They are alike, however--rendered somewhat geometrically, with lines that are horizontal or vertical; and the serrations in the seal's flippers seem to be echoed in the bear's paws and teeth.

Other works literally intermingle human and animal identities. Eegyvudluk Pootoogook's Bird Spirit shows a bird kneeling, wings together as if in prayer. As Terrence Heath points out in his excellent essay in the beautifully illustrated catalog, "A bird is subsumed in a human form, or, a human is becoming bird." Still more explicit is Owl Woman, by Kovinaktilliak Takpaungai: the figure has a woman's face, legs, and boots, but at one side is an owl wing, at the other a partial wing.

These works offer a different vision than most Western art of humans' place in the world. Though the knife, spear, or harpoon seen in many works makes a human the master of the hunt, human beings are still not seen as fundamentally different from animals. But it's important not to overpraise these works' eco-purity, as some of the Field materials do. One catalog essay, for example, after describing a variety of Inuit art activities concludes: "And all this in service of the earth." But selling works like these has placed the Inuit firmly in the international cash economy, and some of the cash they earn goes for gasoline for snowmobiles and outboard motors. Perhaps they burn a lot less fossil fuel than most of us, but not all they do is "in service of the earth."

Similarly, many of the finest works have little directly to do with the earth and a lot to do with great Western art, particularly in their self-conscious formalism. Master Mask, by Iola Ikkidluak and Kavavav King, is a large marble oval sculpted into a somewhat inscrutable face that's oddly, powerfully asymmetrical. The stone gets thinner toward the bottom, creating a sunken look in both cheeks, but one side is thinner than the other, and that cheek is even more sunken. There are also smaller asymmetries--one eye is a bit lower than the other, for example. The effect is startling; the irregularities bring the work alive, and it takes a bit of time to comprehend this unfamiliar shape. Even stronger is Singing Owl Dancing, by Pootoogook Qiatsuk. An owl of blotchy green serpentine perches on one foot, mouth wide open, the other foot in the air with its claws pointing oddly upward; one wing is thrust somewhat more forward than the other. The pose animates the bird--one can almost hear its throaty song. But there is also a strangely modern formalism to the pose; as in Master Mask, the asymmetries call attention to the work's form.

Then there are a few fierce works that recall some of the aggressiveness of ceremonial or religious objects from many cultures. Kungalookakee, by Davie Atchealak, is a head of dark soapstone; arms emanate from the ears, and legs from the cheeks--there is no torso. Large muscles bulge in the arms; the feet have three toes; arms and legs jut out asymmetrically from the head; the mouth is open. This demonlike work confronts the viewer directly, threateningly. Even if it owes its existence to Caucasian tastes in "primitive" art, it has an authentic power that implies its aggression was felt by its maker.

As for the question of how such "inauthentic," hybrid works--the Inuit are now settled, not nomadic; equipped with TVs; and part of the international economy, making works not for their own use but for export--could be so strong, I have no answer. But they give the lie to some of our prejudices about art; great work can come from anywhere. In 1957 George Swinton, a renowned authority on Inuit art, saw the changes that resettlement had brought to these people and predicted the demise of their art "within this generation"; he has lately admitted that his, and other similar predictions, were wrong.

Some of the biases against "inauthentic" art are based on unstated assumptions about the purity of the original culture and its artistic tradition. In fact, Inuit art at the time that whites first encountered it had already been radically altered: the global cooling that came with the advent of the "Little Ice Age," about 1580, forced them to become more nomadic, and their artworks became smaller and fewer. Nor were the Inuit the continuous occupiers of their land since the time of the first crossing from Asia. For 3,000 years Arctic Canada was occupied by a people and a culture we now call Dorset, which had their own artistic traditions; they vanished about 1000 AD. The Inuit's own legends imply that the Inuit's ancestors invaded the rest of the Arctic from Alaska and killed off or drove away the Dorsets. All human culture, it would seem, has a heritage of blood.

The Inuit idea that shamans can transform themselves into animals is part of an entire belief system that sees animals and humans as profoundly connected. An unattributed statement in the catalog declares, "Bears dance and owls become human to bring us voices from our ancestors. All is natural and the land and its animals contain the knowledge of all life past and present." Shaman's Dream, by David Ruben Piqtoukun, uses a variety of non-Arctic stones (this artist lives part of each year in Toronto) to depict a large, elongated, highly asymmetrical head. On the sides and back of it are carved fishes, a seal, a walrus, a bird. Tukiki Manomie's Life's Fantasy is more abstract: a twisted mass of deep brown serpentine whose forms suggest animals, plants, rocks, though few are definitely identifiable. The vague, highly suggestive figures become first one thing, then another: the "shaman's dream" is now occurring in the viewer's imagination.

The transformations of these two powerful works suggest not fidelity to nature but the power of the human mind over the given, seen world. And the idea that transformations and abstraction can produce an inner renewal in the viewer is common in modern Western art. And so editor and curator Mark Kalluak, rejecting the idea of nature as an absolute physical given, sounds curiously Western when he writes in a statement for the exhibit: "What you see or hear is not what is important. I will tell you this. Behind all this art, beneath all these shapes there is nothing. And in this nothing you will find everything. . . . You must be open to possibilities. All bears can sing and dance. All beings can change form. It is important however to be open to the true course of life. This is the Inuit spirit--completely in the service of possibility and new life."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of Amway Environmental Foundation.

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