Kenojuak Ashevak, Enchanted Owl (green tail), 1960. Photograph: The Museum of Inuit Art.
When you step into the Museum of Inuit Art, which is hidden at the back of the Queen’s Quay Terminal on the Harbourfront, you’ll probably recognize the first picture you see. This is the “Enchanted Owl.” According to the museum’s curator, Ingo Hessel, it is “a true icon…probably the most famous image in Inuit art if not Canadian art.”
Most people know the image best in red on a postage stamp, but a lot of people don’t know that the stonecut original was also printed in green ink. This is the version on display in the lobby.
“Kenojuak Ashevak made that image almost fifty years ago and she is still very active—and she is a quite experimental artist,” says Hessel. “She has been doing some amazing new work and she is now in her early eighties.”
The MIA is only two years old. It was set up by an ex-teacher, David Harris, and claims to be Canada’s only public museum south of the Arctic totally dedicated to Inuit art. The museum begins with tiny early carvings and carries on through the influences that the first explorers, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the RCMP brought to the north. It also contains much work by present-day Inuit artists. A gallery next door allows you to buy artworks, profits from the sales of which are plowed back into the museum.
Jane Schmidt, a staff member at the MIA, says that the location on Toronto’s Harbourfront was chosen because of its proximity to a cultural hub. Also, the lake adds to the atmosphere. “When we do tours in the winter we pretend we’re in the Arctic. There are ducks that come from there to the water.”
The museum is determined to showcase the full breadth of Inuit art in all its variations. “People tend to think that the Arctic is one amorphous mass culture. It’s not, really,” says Schmidt. Inuit from different parts of northern Canada have different accents when they speak, different ways of telling stories, and access to different raw material. All this is reflected in the art people produce: for example, south Baffin Island uses a lot of green stone, while artists in the central Arctic use ivory and, being the most remote and isolated, are less influenced by western tradition.
And Inuit art is not just sculpture after sculpture of Inukshuks and polar bears: wall hangings and graphic prints feature equally as strongly. For instance, there is a black-and-white sealskin hanging on one wall, with beautiful details of hunting scenes picked out in inverse using a technique called insetting.
“The permanent display [at the museum] is rather sculpture-heavy,” says Hessel, who hopes to create spaces devoted to graphic and textile arts soon, so Inuit art can be fully represented.
Kiawak Ashoona, Sea Goddess. Courtesy of Canadian Guild of Crafts, Montreal. Photograph: The Museum of Inuit Art.
The museum holds temporary exhibitions focused on different stories, regions, or artists. A current exhibition focuses on the Inuit sea goddess, Sedna. You may know the name from astronomy: Sedna’s name was given to a moon, or a planet (nobody seems too sure) that might (or might not) be orbiting Pluto. It’s a chilly −400°F there, about as cold as Coors seems to believe Torontonians to be.
There are as many versions of Sedna’s story as there are oral histories, but most of them are variations of the same unfortunate tale. Sedna’s father wanted her married. She refused. Her father took her out in a kayak and drowned her, cutting off her fingers so she couldn’t hold on to the boat. But her severed fingers became the fauna of the sea, and she grew the tail of a whale. If she becomes upset, she causes seas to become rough and vacant of food, so a shaman is appointed to go below the waves and comb her hair so she calms down. There are not a lot of nudes in Inuit art—apart from Sedna.
The collection contains many depictions of the goddess, again, not all the typical sculptures you might expect. A Sedna on a crucifix and another being drowned in a net with oilcans are two stark works by Bill Nasogaluak, while a humorous print by another artist shows four Sednas in synchronized swimming outfits.
The Sedna exhibition will run until January next year. And from October, the museum will house a temporary gallery of another kind of Inuit artform: dolls.
Although Hessel doesn’t want people to think that Inuit art is a closed-off, ethnic artform, he says there’s a special freedom to the work that native artists create. “They don’t have to unlearn so much of what other artists have to unlearn,” he says. “That’s one of the miracles of Inuit art.”
“I want people who didn’t know anything about Inuit art to come away feeling that they have had their eyes opened. It’s a window into another artform and another culture.”
The Museum of Inuit Art is open from 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Monday to Sunday. Adults pay $6, children $5.