Originally created 09/15/03

Inuit art featured in new exhibit

NEWARK, Del. -- If a picture is worth 1,000 words, the drawings in a new exhibit at University Gallery may require some reading between the lines.

"Land of Ice, Hearts of Fire," is not just a collection of works of art, but a narrative of a centuries-old culture told through an artistic tradition barely 50 years old.

The exhibition, which opened Sept. 10 and runs through Dec. 14, features Canadian Inuit drawings donated to the University of Delaware by late architect Frederick Herman and his wife, Lucy.

It also includes baskets, dolls and other modern artifacts collected by the late Harley and Mabel McKeague, who spent several years visiting and working in Yupik villages in Alaska.

At first glance, visitors might not see beyond the primitive style of the drawings and other works. Upon further examination, however, they might discover something that goes beyond the simplistic label of "Eskimo art."

"It provides us with an enormous opportunity to see another culture through the eyes of the artist," said Judith Nasby, director of the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre in Guelph, Ontario, and an expert on Inuit art.

Animal motifs, not surprisingly, are common in the Inuit drawings, replete with fish, seals, walruses and Arctic birds. Hunting, fishing, dogsledding and igloo building are among the activities captured by the artists, whose ancestors lived for centuries as nomadic hunters before the depletion of caribou herds and the building of schools and medical clinics attracted Inuits to permanent settlements in the 1950s.

In 1999, the Inuit homeland of Nunavut, roughly the size of Western Europe, was created in what was the eastern half of Canada's Northwest Territories.

"These drawings reflect that enormous change that happened in a short period of 40 years," said Nasby, who will attend the opening along with Peter Irniq, commissioner of Nunavut. In his largely ceremonial role, Irniq works to promote and preserve Inuit culture and language.

Besides the drawings, the exhibit features several finely carved sculptures. The Inuit were carving and engraving ivory, bone and soapstone long before James Houston, an artist and Northern Services officer for the Canadian government, introduced paper and graphite pencils to Inuit settlements to encourage the development of native art as an economic tool.

The resulting works, from artists with no formal training in a culture with no Western-style tradition of drawing, formed the backbone of a successful printmaking industry.

"In a way, it's sort of a cottage industry that got created to help people feed themselves," said University Gallery director Belena Chapp.

On Oct. 22, Houston's son John, a filmmaker, will host a public screening and discussion of his Arctic documentaries.

While money played a role in the creation of Inuit drawings, it also was a factor in the Hermans' decision to add such works to their collection of European and American drawings.

"We got to the point where we couldn't afford Western art," recalled Lucy Herman, 77. "We always liked what they called naive art, primitive art."

The Hermans stumbled upon Inuit drawings about 20 years ago at a museum in Juneau, Alaska. After learning where to find the dealer for a particular artist they admired, the couple jumped in a taxi, headed into the Alaskan mountains and purchased their first drawing.

Working under the guidance of the late Joe Murphy, founder of the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver, the Hermans began amassing a collection of Inuit art numbering almost 200 works.

"They really began to collect the canon of Inuit art, if there is such a thing," said the Hermans' son, Bernard, professor of art history at the University of Delaware and director of the Center for American Material Culture Studies.

"We really went to a lot of trouble to get certain (drawings), to show the disappearing old way of life in igloos, sleds, kayaks," Lucy Herman added. "That life is gone. They have grocery stores and supermarkets. They eat the same thing we do."

Nevertheless, plenty of cultural contrasts are evident in the exhibit.

"Holding on for Life," captures in colored pencil one of the challenges of life in the far north: How to make it safely from one ice floe to another. "Using the Bow Drill" also offers a subject not typically found in museum shows.

The exhibit features several examples of the shamanistic and animistic influences in Inuit culture, sometimes expressed in figures that are half-human and half-animal.

"They believed there was both a spiritual reality and a physical reality to everything," Nasby explained.

That's not to say the typical Westerner can't relate. "Mother and Child," an ink and crayon portrait of a woman breast-feeding her baby, shares a common thread with the madonnas of the Byzantine period.

Given the lack of formal training among the artists, it's not surprising that three-point perspective and other technical aspects of Western drawing take a back seat to subject matter and repetition of motifs. As Nasby explained, the artists wanted to communicate as much information as possible.

"Sometimes you see an enormous fish in a small person," she said. "That emphasizes the importance of the food quest."

The drawings span three generations of Inuit artists, including pioneers such as Pitseolak Ashoona, Jessie Oornark, Kenojuak Ashevak and Pudlo Pudlat, whose solo exhibit in the National Gallery of Canada in 1990 was a first for an Inuit artist.

Younger artists represented include Victoria Mamnguqsualik, Simon Tookoome and Irene Avaalaaquaq Tiktaalaaq. To show the continuity among generations, many of the works are grouped by families.

While the Inuit work consists primarily of drawings, the highlights of the Yupik exhibit are finely crafted coiled grass baskets and a collection of dolls fashioned from wood, ivory, caribou and seal skin, and fur. One of the few drawings in the Yupik exhibit is an ink-on-sealskin creation entitled "Walruses."

Bernard Herman said he hopes the exhibition will help people think about art and its purpose in ways they haven't before. But his mother doesn't want visitors to get too wrapped up in academics.

"I don't think they should learn anything," Lucy Herman said. "They should enjoy. Art is to be enjoyed."

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