Inuit Fantastic Art

The theme for this exhibition was inspired by a sculpture competition in Puvirnituq in 1967 and a subsequent exhibition in Winnipeg in 1972. In 1967 an art competition was held in Puvirnituq, sponsored by American anthropologist Dr. Nelson Graburn, who was in the community doing research on contemporary artists and art activities. Carvers had complained to Graburn that the Hudson Bay Company buyers only wanted them to create subjects that were realistic depictions of arctic animals or scenes from everyday life. The competition was organized to encourage the carvers to create works of originality and imagination, independent of the usual commercial production, with cash prizes being offered for the best pieces. A number of carvers responded with carvings of a fantastic, even surreal nature, with first prize going to Eli Sallualu Qinuajua. They have continued to create these imaginative works over the years and the WAG has a significant number of these sculptures by a variety of different artists.

Intrigued by the results of the 1967 contest, George Swinton organized a catalogued exhibition titled Eskimo Fantastic Art at the University of Manitoba’s Gallery 1.1.1 in 1972, and his exhibition title became associated thereafter with bizarre and surreal forms and subjects in Inuit art. Swinton was an influential writer, collector, and teacher at the University of Manitoba School of Art from 1954 to 1974. In his catalogue he noted that “the fantastic carvings which came out of this [1967] competition are not isolated stylistic freaks, but are part of old oral and visual traditions not only common to Povungnituk and the Canadian Arctic but indeed to the entire arctic region from Siberia to Greenland.” This observation is borne out by early sculptures from the 1950s and 1960s created by Cape Dorset  artists, also included in the exhibition.

Swinton’s statement is also true when considering the tupilaq tradition of Inuit from East Greenland. The tupilaq was a harmful spirit created by a shaman out of bones and skin, brought to life through magical chants and sent to kill one’s enemy. Danish inhabitants of Greenland wanted to know what these mysterious creatures looked like and carvers began to create them from their imagination using the teeth of sperm whales. Several tupilaqs from the WAG collection are featured in this exhibition.

The fantastic and the surreal are associated with giving imagination free rein, without the conscious control of reason and convention, and allowing the subconscious full play. The work of several graphic artists from Baker Lake which exhibits these tendencies is featured in this exhibition. Baker Lake artists include Ruth Annaqtuusi Tulurialik, Simon Tookoome, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, Janet Kigusiuq, Myra Kukiiyaut, Irene Avaalaaqiaq Tiktaalaaq, and Françoise Oklaga.

Darlene Coward Wight
Curator of Inuit Art

Exhibition Review from the NGC Magazine

Eli Sallualu Qinuajua, Spirit, c. 1968, stone, Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery

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