Preserving culture in art: the North Baffin drawings
In 1964, as part of an outreach project, Inuit people in North Baffin communities created hundreds of drawings, recording memories of their childhoods, recalling stories passed down for generations, and capturing moments of everyday life. These drawings have been brought out of storage and into the public eye by Norman Vorano, Queen’s National Scholar and Curator of Indigenous Studies at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.
"Draw me something. Anything,” said Terry Ryan to the Inuit he encountered.
The tides were changing in the North. The 1950s and 1960s saw influences from the South, including social programming, waves of civil servants, and residential schools, significantly transform traditional camp life – a way of life known to the Inuit since the 19th century. Recognizing the impending impact on these peoples and their culture, Terry Ryan, the arts adviser for the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset, set out by dogsled to the relatively “untouched” communities of North Baffin Island. Armed with stacks of paper, pencils, and a $4,000 grant to fund his journey, he wanted these individuals to record their fleeting way of life, their feelings, and their cherished traditions.
Mr. Ryan did not want to influence what was drawn, so he gave little to no instruction. About a month after distributing supplies, he returned to each camp and purchased all that had been produced. In total, he collected 1,840 drawings created by 159 Inuit living in and around Clyde River, Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet, and Igloolik. The drawings, many of which included writing (Inuktitut), provide a cultural repository of Arctic life in 1964 – from stories passed down through generations, big moments in individual lives, to quotidian details. Upon his return to Cape Dorset, Mr. Ryan catalogued the collection and it was placed in storage where, other than a brief interlude in 1986, it has remained.
Art as a transformative force
For Norman Vorano, Queen’s National Scholar and Curator of Indigenous Art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, these archived drawings presented a great opportunity. A leading figure in the study of Inuit art, Dr. Vorano explores the ways in which art was instrumental to the evolving political and cultural landscape in the Arctic, and to the empowerment of Indigenous players in the North. “Historically, Inuit art had a thorny place within anthropology and art history because a lot of mid-20th-century ethnologists did not see it as an authentic cultural expression,” says Dr. Vorano. “And yet, despite its popularity among collectors, many power brokers in the established art world viewed Inuit art as too acculturated, ‘inauthentic’ tourist art.”
Fortunately, this worldview has since shifted dramatically, as both the aesthetic and cultural value of Inuit art is acknowledged. Today, there is also a widespread recognition of how art was transformative in the Arctic. For example, in the 1950s, the dissolution of the white fox pelt trade, coupled with inadequate social services, left some Inuit populations destitute. The carving industry, which later diversified into other mediums, allowed people to have an income and flexible work environment. This income led to the creation of Inuit-owned business co-operatives, which eventually broke the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company and expanded into many other sectors.
Art-making also allowed Inuit to record the kinds of cultural practices people remembered from stories or from childhood. Dr. Vorano says, “Art-making became a way to explore, experience, and express ideas of what Inuit culture meant and could mean in a time of great transition and upheaval.”
Out of the archives
More than 50 years after Terry Ryan solicited drawings that document the beginnings of profound change in the Arctic, Norman Vorano has dusted off the North Baffin collection. His aim is to make its pieces available to the public and, most importantly, to the communities they came from. Dr. Vorano has curated a travelling exhibition of the collection, a joint venture by the Agnes and the Canadian Museum of History, which acquired the drawings in 2014. The exhibition is not static; rather, working with various institutional partners in Nunavut, it features audio and video interpretations of the drawings by the artists and members of the communities where they originated, collected by Dr. Vorano as he retraced Mr. Ryan’s 1964 journey to Canada’s last frontier.
Our world is changing and I want to record this so we don’t forget who we are.
With the support of the federal government’s Museums Assistance Program, Dr. Vorano’s exhibit, Picturing Arctic Modernity: North Baffin Drawings from 1964, premiered at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre in January and is on view there until April.
In the second phase of the project, Dr. Vorano hopes to find the financial support to develop a reciprocal research network that would see the digitized collection available in its entirety to anyone who wants to see it, particularly Inuit in Nunavut. “This collection was made for an Inuit audience,” he says. “The compulsion to record and share is so evident in the drawings. Many even wrote, ‘Our world is changing and I want to record this so that we don’t forget who we are and where we came from.’ People in these communities should have access to these drawings to better understand their history through the documentary evidence – art – created by their ancestors. It’s important that this cultural knowledge is preserved indefinitely and shared.”