In the Inuit tradition, if two men had a dispute it could be resolved by organizing a drum dance tournament in which each contestant composed a song and dance, accompanied by his wife and women of the community. Elders would judge which man had the most stamina, best choreography and most interesting lyrics; the winner of the contest prevailed in the original dispute and harmony was restored.
So much violence is performative: Wouldn’t it be great if disputes the world over could be resolved by dancing instead of fighting?
But universal lessons in conflict resolution are hardly the point of TUSARNITUT! Music Born of the Cold, an exhibition devoted to musical and performance traditions in the circumpolar region. Instead, what the exhibition reveals is how music was embedded in Inuit societies specifically. The Inuit sought to amuse and amaze each other on long winter nights or at seasonal festivals, but these entertainments originated in social purposes and spiritual practices.
The exhibition, organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and now showing at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, begins with the drum dance of the angakkuq, the shaman who had the power to connect with the spirits of ancestors and of animals. Ensuring both spiritual and ecological balance, he protected his community from illness and disease, and secured a good hunt by maintaining relations with the animals on which the Inuit so depended.
Partly this was achieved through song and dance, and this exhibition includes a whole series of hand drums and animal masks for such performances. Standouts include an Inuvialuit loon headdress of the late 19th or early 20th century from the ROM’s own collection. It would have been used in a performance where the shaman would have, through his cries and movement, become a loon. There’s also a bold wooden seal mask from Alaska dating to the 1880s, with quills for whiskers, from the MMFA collection, and a long-faced ritual mask that was made of wood and trimmed with fur in the 1930s, one of several Greenlandic masks on loan from the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris.
Those are among the older pieces. Most of the material here dates to the 20th century, including many depictions of dancing and singing in Inuit carving, prints and drawings from 1960 and later. But the practices had ancient roots: There are a mask and drum frame in the collection of the Canadian Museum of History, which were found on Baffin Island and date back at least 1,000 years. (Photographs represent them here.)
The masks also include an odd figure from the MMFA collection, a face with a curly mustache and a big red nose carved by an unknown Alaskan artist in the late 1800s or early 1900s: As the Inuit increasingly came into contact with European whalers and traders, they made masks for the tourist trade and this one represents a non-Inuit face.
By the 1960s, as the Canadian government forced the Inuit into permanent settlements, they were also encouraged to make carvings to sell to the South and were introduced to printmaking. Many of the fine sculptures and works on paper here, depicting drummers and throat singers, date to that period, and sometimes comment on the tensions between Inuit and settler society, or between tradition and modernity.
A small model showing a drum dance tournament inside a qaggiq, a ceremonial igloo, was carved in stone and antler by artist Therese Natsiq Tulugatjuk in 1977 – by which time the igloos specially constructed for such performances were fading into memory. One undated drawing, Drum Dance by Jessie Oonark, shows the same igloo shape but the upper half is filled with Christian choristers lined up in tidy rows while the bottom features the looser Inuit performance. In a humorous serpentine carving from 1990 by artist Pootoogook Jaw a figure holding the traditional hand drum and mallet joins a singer and guitarist with an amp and mics.
The MMFA has made something of a specialty of exhibitions about music, including last year’s show about Jean-Michel Basquiat’s musical interests and a 2017 exhibition devoted to the theme of music in Marc Chagall’s work. The category may seem a bit counterintuitive but relies on a healthy dose of audio and video clips alongside the visual art. Here, there are old recordings of men singing traditional Inuit songs and more recent performances of throat singing, with the best available on smartphones via a QR code.
Inuit performance tends to be gendered: Throat singing is traditionally a friendly competition between two women to see whose breath lasts the longest but it too has ancient roots in summoning a good hunt and maintaining ecological balance as it imitates the rhythms of nature and cries of birds.
Today, in the midst of a powerful revival of Inuit performance, it takes on a purely aesthetic purpose: This exhibition ends with a video of Tanya Tagaq performing an improvised piece of throat singing in 2009, offering a solo performance of operatic flourish and musical delight.
TUSARNITUT! Music Born of the Cold continues to Sept. 24 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.