Inuit tapestries depict Arctic life and legends

Nuvisavik, “The Place Where We Weave,” is a brand new exhibit introducing Inuit tapestries from Arctic Canada. These woven works, which depict northern life and legends, will be on show at Gatineau’s (formerly Hull’s) Canadian Museum of Civilization until 8 September 2003.

Arts and crafts form a connective tissue which join all peoples on Earth. Every culture has its art form and working with textiles, whether it be quilting, fashioning braided rugs or sewing clothes is a craft that particularly unites us all. Why? Because textiles give us shelter and clothing, those elemental necessities of every culture.

Besides, there are many of us here in the Pontiac who are interested in textiles and so this exhibit is bound to fascinate many of you.

In fact, historically, textiles have played crucial political roles. For example, quilts were used during the days of the Underground Railroad, whereby routes to safe houses were hidden in the patterns. Slaves seeking their freedom via routes to the northern US and into Canada knew how to decipher the quilted “codes.”

And who among us who studied Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities in high school could forget his dour character, Madame Defarge, knitting names of traitors to the French Revolution into her scarves?

Textiles have long reflected the warp and weft of human life. And making textile items such as quilts becomes a social event whereby every stitch represents a topic discussed, moments shared. Until recent years when specialty quilt stores opened to sell fabrics in an unimaginable selection of colours and patterns, almost all quilts were made from recycled material.

The exhibit of Inuit tapestries woven by artists from Pangnirtung at the Canadian Museum of Civilization particularly intrigued me because weaving is not a traditional Inuit pastime. What would they be like? Are they truly “authentic” Inuit art if weaving is not indigenous to this culture?

To me, this point is a red herring. For what does it matter that this artform wasn’t a traditional craft? The point should be, I believe, that the tapestries are exquisite works of art that portray Inuit ways of life, the landscape of their Arctic world, and their mythology.

The argument that weaving “cannot be considered authentic Inuit art also ignores the fact that Inuit culture has undergone considerable change over the past 300 years, as European whalers, traders and missionaries introduced new technologies and beliefs. The Inuit have always displayed a great capacity to integrate changes into their way of life. The Pangnirtung tapestries are an excellent example of this. Pangnirtung women learned the technique of weaving in a month, when it usually takes people six months.” [quote from press release]

Why was weaving not a tradition among Inuit peoples? Perhaps because of their nomadic lifestyle. Certainly they fashioned clothes from animal skins. But weaving takes time, and hence a more sedentary existence. As an artform it is surely more suited to a warmer environment.

But in the late 1950s and 1960s, the Inuit faced another kind of move: instead of a nomadic movement dictated by animal migration and climatic conditions, the Canadian government forced them to move to settlements for a variety of reasons. Ostensibly the moves were to encourage access to housing, medical services and schools.

As we know largely through media, the result was highly traumatic. “The Government of Canada tried to lessen the demoralizing effect of the relocations by establishing arts and crafts projects in most of the newly created settlements in the Arctic. One such project was a weaving studio in Pangnirtung. In 1969, in consultation with the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal, the government sent artist-weaver Donald Stuart to Pangnirtung to teach a group of young women the art of weaving.

“In the 30 years that Inuit artists have been working together at the Pangnirtung Tapestry Studio, styles and techniques have changed noticeably. What has remained unchanged is their choice of themes. To this day, the tapestries depict the Old North and life before settlement.” [from press release]

When I visited the Museum, a tour was in progress with Exhibition Co-curator July Papatsie, an Inuit who was born and raised in Pangnirtung. His stories and insights into the various scenes depicted by the artists were fascinating.

One of my favourite artists, Malay Akulukjuk (1912-1995) was one of the “first generation” of weavers, also known as The Elders. She wove intriguing images of the landscape in which she lived and her drawings are strongly influenced by the spiritual world. She was probably a shaman.

“When I start drawing, I imagine it in my mind, then after I have done that, I let it sit and think more about it,” she said of her creative process.

Described as “a formidable person who loved to hunt, she married only at the age of twenty, and much against her will. Even then, she continued to hunt, sometimes taking a group of women with her. Malaya had 15 children, and often she hunted while pregnant or carrying a baby in her hood.”

Because the exhibit will be at the museum until 8 September 2003, you have plenty of time to visit, perhaps more than once. For further information, contact the museum at 819-776-7000 else 1-800-776-7003. Another upcoming event for history buffs is the upcoming exhibit entitled Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, (May 8 to October 14).

The CMC offers an outstanding program called “Conversation and Coffee”. These are chats with the curators associated with the exhibits or other specialists, so when you call to find out about exhibits, do ask about these chats that offer an extra layer of understanding to what is on display.

Migrants returning

Call me or e-mail with your sightings of spring’s returning migrants. For two weeks there have been 4 killdeer on the Steele Line. I’ve also seen two American sparrow hawks, three tree swallows, heard a flicker: despite what the weather presents us with, spring is here!


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer based north of Quyon.