Inuit Art Centre to reveal beauty of the North in the south

The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Inuit Art Centre will not only transform part of Winnipeg’s downtown — it’s set to change the way the world sees an art form. The centre will house the WAG’s 13,000-piece collection of Inuit art — the world’s largest.

Winnipeg's $65-million centre will house world's largest collection of Inuit art

Germaine Arnaktauyok's Throat Singing from 2006. Pen and ink on paper. “She has a beautiful drawing technique where she uses little squiggles to build up her forms tonally," said the WAG's Inuit art curator, Darlene Coward Wight. (courtesy Ernest Mayer/Winnipeg Art Gallery)

Go into any Canadian souvenir shop and next to the canoe shelf and stuffed moose, there's bound to be small stone carvings, likely made overseas, sold as Inuit art.

They're cheap imitations making profit from stereotypes of Canada's North.

"You know, 'airport art' has been a term that's been given to it," said the Winnipeg Art Gallery's longtime Inuit art curator, Darlene Coward Wight.

With every exhibition Coward Wight has put together — and she's curated about 90 — she said she's tried to "cut against" Inuit art stereotypes.

"I like to surprise people," she said.

For 27 of the 30 years Coward Wight has overseen the WAG's collection of Inuit art, she's worked out of the gallery's underground vault, surrounded by stone and ivory.

That will change when the WAG opens its new, $65-million Inuit Art Centre, bringing the world's largest Inuit art collection to the surface, including 7,600 sculptures, dozens of hand-sewn wall hangings and more than 3,000 drawings and prints.

While there's always at least one Inuit art exhibit on display at the WAG, it only ever shows a fraction of the collection, as narrow as snow-goggle slits.

"It's just frustrating when people come to the gallery and they say, 'OK, you've got the largest public collection of Inuit art in the world. Where is it?'" she said.

Bringing those works to the surface seems to be what Coward Wight looks forward to most as she prepares for the construction and opening of the centre.

She also wants to foster understanding.

"The whole culture really is revealed through the art. It's a pretty astonishing and interesting culture."

The gallery's 13,000-piece collection of Inuit art along with 7,300 pieces on loan from the Nunavut government will be featured in exhibition spaces and a visible vault, a cylindrical glass-walled art storage unit.

Sculpture out of stone

Carvings make up nearly two-thirds of the works in the WAG's Inuit collection. Since the 1950s, selling stone sculptures in the south has been an essential economic driver in the North.

The idea of selling carved stone was introduced by the federal government after the collapse of the fur trade in the late 1940s.

What's considered the contemporary period of Inuit carving began in 1949, said Coward Wight, when an exhibition of carvings from Nunavik, northern Quebec, was held in Montreal.

Inuit communities have always carved, of course. But carving for art was saved for more precious material — tusks. Coward Wight said the ivory was turned into miniatures and trinkets that could be traded like currency in the North.

Stone was only carved into functional items, such as bowls and lamps.

The Canadian government pushed sculptors to develop new income streams, and they were encouraged to make larger pieces, said Coward Wight.

"You can only go so large with a tusk," she said.

So the artists turned to stone.

Around the same time, large serpentinite deposits were found in Cape Dorset. The dark green stone with hints of golden yellow became a trademark material of Inuit stone carving in works by artists such as Oviloo Tunnillie, Kiugak Ashoona and Osuitok Ipeelee.

Pens, pencils, paper, prints

As interest around Inuit carving grew, so did interest in other forms of art.

"Making drawings was something totally introduced ... Carving for sale was certainly introduced as well, but not to the extent," Coward Wight said.

"They didn't have stores of artist paper there or even coloured pencils or inks."

Co-operatives began to spring up in the late 1950s to support local artists. They brought supplies and training to the North. The organizations became essential to the creation of a northern printmaking and drawing industry, said Coward Wight.

James Houston, an Ontario artist, author and federal government employee, travelled to Japan to learn how to create prints using wood blocks, a technique he took to Cape Dorset, where he adapted it to use stone blocks and taught it to members of the local artist co-op. The West Baffin Eskimo Co-op still operates today.

The development of printmaking was particularly important for female artists — Kenojuak Ashevak, Jessie Oonark and Helen Kalvak are examples — who tended to gravitate to the visual arts while men tended to dominate in stone carving, which demands more physical strength.

The first print collection in 1959 was comprised of art made in Cape Dorset and technique quickly spread to other Inuit communities, including Baker Lake, Ulukhaktok, Igloolik and Pangnirtung.

Construction begins 2017

Groundbreaking for the four-level, 40,000-square-foot Inuit Art Centre in Winnipeg is scheduled to take place next year. Officials estimate the project will take between two and three years.

Winnipeg has pledged $5 million toward the $65 million needed, with another $30 million coming from the federal and provincial governments and the private sector covering the rest.

WAG staff said they're about halfway to meeting the private-sector fundraising goal.

Aside from the art, the WAG plans to make the centre a meeting place for Indigenous learning, performance and storytelling. 

"The centre will be much more than a home for the largest public collection of contemporary Inuit art on earth," reads a message on the centre's website from WAG director and CEO Stephen Borys.

"It is about rethinking the role of the art museum while providing cultural and historical context for Inuit art and people."