Inuit art has been such a part of our cultural landscape for so long that you can be forgiven for thinking of it as the art world's Proud Mary - a big wheel that keeps rollin', rollin', rollin' prints, drawings and carvings down from the Arctic into the airport and tourist shops of the country.
This seeming constancy, however, is very much an outsider's perspective. For those in the know, Inuit art is like any other viable art form - changeable, nuanced, prone to highs and lows, good influences and bad. Financially, there have been some very high times recently: In 2006, for example, Toronto-based Waddington's, the country's pre-eminent resale venue for Inuit art, grossed a record $3-million from its spring and fall auctions. Pacing the sales was the $278,500 purchase of a "Joe boat" - art-market slang for one of the much-coveted umiak sculptures of Joe Talirunili. That tally is still the record for a single Inuit objet d'art sold at auction.
For a sense of more recent artistic developments and the history behind them, the place to go is the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. It's hosting Inuit Modern, an exhibition of more than 175 prints, sculpture and drawings by 75 artists, a good 30 per cent of whom are still alive and working in places such as Nunavut's Baker Lake and Cape Dorset.
Inuit Modern is the first big Inuit show at the AGO in 10 years, culled from the 3,000 artifacts Toronto collectors Samuel and Esther Sarick have donated to the gallery since the mid-1990s. And it's timely, too. As AGO Canadian art curator Gerald McMaster points out, the North is "with us" and the rest of the world in a way it never has before. "We're affected by the idea and the reality of global climate change, the way the polar ice cap is melting faster than ever. There's the ongoing debate over the seal hunt, issues over Canadian sovereignty, resource exploitation, the viability of Nunavut as a territory."
McMaster curated Inuit Modern with Ingo Hessel, curator of Toronto's Museum of Inuit Art. As the exhibition's title suggests, the duo was motivated less by the stylistic or thematic concerns that have shaped previous Inuit shows than by "the question of modernity."
When Inuit art first started to circulate in cities such as Montreal and Toronto, then overseas, the works drew heavily on the natural world as well as precontact myths and traditions. While shiny green soapstone sculptures of musk-ox and hunters wielding ivory harpoons remain popular for the tourist market, in recent years more artists have been pursuing more individuated agendas, "using much more personal iconography, feelings, dreams," in the words of Toronto veteran art dealer Patricia Feheley. So in Inuit Modern we have Annie Pootoogook's ink-and-pencil drawings of denim-clad Inuit playing cards in electrified kitchens with refrigerators, smoke detectors and plug-in radios. There's Bill Nasogaluak's 2006 stone sculpture of a bear falling through ice softened by the effects of global warming. And David Ruben Piqtoukun's Shaman Crash Landing, a sculpture depicting a broken airplane with a shaman mask in the cockpit.
As Feheley puts it, "this is contemporary art that just happens to be done by Inuit artists." At the same time, she stresses that southern connoisseurs shouldn't give in to the "fantasy" that this art is a reflection of "the influence of southern artists." While Tim Pitsiulak's 2009 drawing Composition (Whalers) may, at four feet by eight feet (122 centimetres by 244 cm), seem as big as a photograph by Edward Burtynsky, the scale has "more to do with each artist in the community spurring each other on" than any tip o' the hat to outsiders. Internet access and travel have helped blur the north-south interface, Feheley notes, but Inuit artists for the most part "remain so isolated; they don't have the opportunity you have in the south to see what's going on."
Of course, it's entirely understandable that art lovers visiting the AGO from Madrid or New York will see something "modern" in, say, Eli Sallualu Qinuajua's Fantastic Figure, a stone sculpture from 1969 that looks like something Giacometti might have done at the same time as his famous bronze Woman with Her Throat Cut. Understandable since, as McMaster says, "you and I are conditioned by a modern sensibility … 100 years ago, our frame of reference would have been vastly different. We would have looked at it in the way that people looked at the Inuit back then, as primitives." But thanks to precedents such as Picasso's love for and appropriations of African sculpture in the early 20th century, "we can actually look at [Inuit art]with a whole new set of lenses."
Among buyers there remains great affection for what McMaster calls "the older stuff." But while Waddington's is seeing "as much volume as before, the higher-quality stuff has become more difficult to find," Inuit art expert Christa Ouimet reports. This is largely because those who either collected or were given first-generation Inuit art in the early 1960s have long since dispersed their holdings or died.
Extraordinary things do occasionally surface. Next month Waddington's is selling a rare edition of Kenojuak Ashevak's first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (No. 17 in an edition of 30).Produced in 1958 from a design prepared for a sealskin bag, the work was included, in 1959, in the first release of the now world-famous Cape Dorset Prints. Presale estimate for the print is $20,000 to $25,000, but no one's going to be surprised if it fetches more than that. Much more.
Inuit Modern: The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection continues until Oct. 16.
Waddington's live Inuit art auction takes place on May 2 in Toronto.