Article | Canadian High Arctic and Greenland

Some Thoughts on Inuit Art

Inuit art is revered for the honesty, intimacy, and power it communicates. Carvings, prints, and weavings are just some of the artistic forms that have impressed the southern art world for over fifty years. What better way to experience the landscapes, wildlife, and culture of the North than through art?
Inuit print workshop

© Dennis Minty

Inuit art has a history of some 4,000 years. Its means of expression took the form of highly decorated material culture. Whether these objects were used for hunting or personal adornment, their significance is unquestionable. The aesthetic appeal underlies the amazing collections to be found in the world’s great museums and galleries.

Historically for Inuit, art created a spiritual bond—a means of communicating with the world around them, and the spiritual forces that controlled that world. Art was a means by which artists translated isumasi ("our thoughts") from their rich oral history.

Printing plate 1

© Lee Narraway

Today’s Inuit artists continue in the role of communicator. This voice honours the land and its people and initiates a dialogue with those who encounter the works of art. To confront a stone carving of a polar bear dancing to its own music, or a mother nursing her newborn, is to experience a glimpse into the Arctic.

The raw materials of stone, bone, and antler emerge from the Arctic landscape. When we hold a beautifully carved piece, we are in touch with this landscape.

“Art can never be understood, but can only be seen as a kind of magic, the most profound and mysterious of all human activities.” — Bill Reid

Paper for limited edition prints and drawings, and textiles used for weavings and wall hangings, are newer materials used by Inuit artists. Both these mediums afford a narrative means of sharing information. Prints that illustrate life in the communities, often contrasting then and now, bring us closer to Inuit way of life. Sprinkled with humour and imagination, prints have become sought-after by collectors. The excellence with which they are produced is a tribute both to the many artistic advisors who have come north to share their expertise, and the talent of the artists to capture their ideas on paper, translate it in the print medium, and produce the print.

Weavings and wall hangings expand on Inuit women's traditional sewing skills, and are a richly decorative and highly personalized art form.

Printing plate 2

© Lee Narraway

As Inuit artists gain recognition, more personal visions may inform their work. We often see signature pieces that characterize the work of a particular artist. Personal thoughts and ideas are translated into stone or onto paper, or an artist may choose to work in a new medium such as film, video, or precious metals.

At times we are challenged by notions such as, what is traditional? What is art? These questions are not limited to art made by Inuit or anyone else. Suffice to say that as we encounter Inuit art, we experience what Reid calls a kind of magic—a gift of seeing and knowing another.

About the Author

Carol Heppenstall

Carol Heppenstall

Inuit Art Specialist

Born in Winnipeg, and now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Carol Heppenstall is a retired faculty instructor at the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, the University of Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario.