Northern Visions: Contemporary Inuit Ceramics

Gardiner Museum

Northern Visions illustrates how the artists of Rankin Inlet draw upon tradition to create new works that embody the attributes of the Inuit people: interconnectedness, resilience, strength, and creativity. This exhibit highlights pieces from the Gardiner’s permanent collection and loans from a private collection, including works by Yvo Samgushak, Roger Aksadjuak, John Kurok, and Leo Napayok.

Northern Visions
Masterfully hand-modelled, the ceramics created by the artists of Rankin Inlet (Kangirliniq, Nunavut) offer a glimpse into their rich cultural legacy. Inuit narratives, identity, and ethos; admiration for the land and the creatures that roam it; reverence for past traditions, and devotion to their communities lie at the heart of these artists’ inspiration. Ceramic production in Canada’s North is unique to Rankin Inlet. It began as a government-run program initiated in 1963, and remained active until 1977 when it was abandoned due to lack of funding and government support. The establishment of the Matchbox Gallery by Jim and Sue Shirley in 1987 has led to a resurgence of interest in ceramics within the past few decades. 

The Matchbox, as it is fondly known, is a creative hub for the residents of Rankin Inlet. A workshop where artists have access to materials, tools, and mentorship, it also acts as a central exhibition space and commercial gallery. Works in clay have suffered from a lack of recognition within the art world compared to other Inuit art forms, such as printmaking, stone carving, and drawing; yet these Canadian artists’ vision and creativity is undeniable and their ceramics are rightfully taking their turn in the spotlight.

Yvo Samgushak began working with clay when he was 19 years old. A veteran of the original government-run ceramics program in Rankin Inlet, Samgushak continued to create artwork and to teach the younger generation of artists until his death. The incised transformation decoration on this vase, a sea creature with feathers, is reminiscent of the graphic designs in Inuit drawing and printmaking also popular at that time.

Kneeling Woman by Eli Tikeayak, as well as Yvo Samgushak’s Vase Decorated with Abstract Faces, exemplify the use of glazes during the initial government-run ceramics program. Limited access to kilns for multiple firings, high electricity costs, and a greater focus on form and subject matter have made glazes less popular with the current generation of artists.

This collaborative work portrays the Legend of Kiviuq, of which there are many versions. In this part of the story, Kiviuq is the sole survivor of a group of hunters who have been lured out to sea by a grandmother who is punishing them for tormenting her grandson. The group drowns in the massive waves, while Kiviuq, the only member of the community never to have hurt the grandson, escapes in a kayak.

According to Inuit legend, Sedna is the goddess of the sea. Living at the bottom of the ocean, she controls all marine life and must be appeased by rituals and visits by Shamans to ensure that the sea creatures will continue to give up their lives for Inuit survival. This sculpture shows Sedna riding a bear with a long dog-like tail. Aksadjuak may be combining multiple stories into a single image, or simply allowing his imagination to dictate the subject matter.

This sculpture by John Kurok and Leo Napayok depicts aspects of Inuit culture and heritage: the back features a couple with a baby tucked into the mother’s amauti (a parka with a pouch for a child); there is an ulu (a woman’s knife) and a seal on one cheek, while a walrus constructs the other; along the forehead is an Inuk (one person); a transformation creature is depicted on the nose; a fish and a bird form the eye and the ear; and Sedna (goddess of the sea) appears along the neck with a flowing braid.

Traditional Inuit belief maintains that there is a spirit world which Shamans can access with their mystical powers. Shamans aid members of their community by appeasing the spirits and foretelling future events, such as the outcome of a hunt. They are also able to transform into animals, which is one of the reasons for the wealth of transformation imagery in Inuit art.

Roger Aksadjuak learned both how to survive on the land and how to make ceramics from his father. Aksadjuak continued to pass on the burgeoning Inuit ceramics tradition by teaching it to others until his premature death. This sculpture depicts a typical scene of Inuit life on the land—the hunter prepares his catch surrounded by traditional weapons and tools.

As one of the younger artists who worked at the Matchbox Gallery, Jack Nuviyak drew inspiration from his daily life and contemporary issues facing the North. In After the Dance, a fight has broken out among a group of men. It appears as though a couple of the figures may be protecting the fallen man on the ground.

While not presented according to a traditional method of interment, this man, possibly a revered elder or much-admired hunter, has been given everything he will need for his journey to the afterlife: food supplies, tools, a shortwave radio, and a meal prepared on the Coleman stove. There is no motor on his boat as he will not be returning.

Working together as a community has been a cornerstone of Inuit survival for centuries. Traditional life skills were passed down from one generation to the next; burdens and successes were shared by all. This spirit of collaboration continues today at the Matchbox Gallery, where artists work and learn alongside one another. We see an example of this in the work Muskox. Kurok created the animal form and the moulded appliqués, and Napayok completed the incising work.

This dynamic sculpture by John Kurok pulls the viewer around the entire vase. The three figures appear to be flying alongside the birds, or swimming in the ocean with the seals. This work looks forward to the abundance and new beginnings that come as winter changes into spring.

Creating ceramics in the North presents many difficulties such as the transportation of clay and glazes, and the high cost of running electric kilns.
Artists have risen to this challenge by adapting methods and techniques to their environment. The current popular aesthetic among the artists is the mottled white to dark-brown finish. This is achieved through the application of a terra sigilatta (a coloured slip, or liquid clay) before the first firing. The work is then sawdust fired to create the mottled effect.

Gardiner Museum
Credits: Story

This exhibition, curated by Sarah Chate, was on display at the Gardiner Museum, Toronto, June 8 - Sept 10, 2017.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Translate with Google