Culture On Cloth

“Culture on Cloth” Inuit Tapestries


MAY 12, 2012 – opening reception

“Culture on Cloth” is a collection of wall hangings created by the women of Baker Lake, an Inuit village west of Hudson Bay in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Using vibrant colors and patterns, the tapestries convey Inuit stories, beliefs, and traditions. The owner of the collection, Judith Burch, is eager to show the ingenuity of the Inuit artists, and offered the exhibit for display in the Camden Public Library during the month of May. Burch will give an illustrated talk on the exhibit and on the artists of Baker Lake at the opening reception to “Culture on Cloth” at 2:00 pm on Saturday, May 12, at the library. The collection has been exhibited all over the world, and will be on display in the Camden library and two other libraries in Maine before going to the Smithsonian for display.

“Polar Bear Hunt” by Mary Yuusipik
Born and raised on the land, Mary Yuusipik settled permanently in Baker Lake around 1960 when her son started school. She learned to sew from her mother, the famous Jessie Oonark, who also encouraged her to make wall hangings. For inspiration she recalls the stories that her grandmother used to tell her as a child. Although Mary Yuusipik is mostly known for her wall hangings, she is also a recognised carver and occasionally does graphic art.

The tapestries use strong blocks and lines of color to depict traditional Inuit hunting scenes and enigmatic symbols of significance to Inuit culture. With no written tradition, the Inuit used tapestries such as these to convey their history and beliefs. The artwork is accompanied by a brief biography and photo of each of the artists.

Baker Lake, population 1,500, is located west of Hudson Bay, in Canada’s special Nunavut Territory, an indigenous self-governing region that is the “the roof of North America.” The Territory of Nunavut, with a population of 30,000, is primarily Inuit. Nunavut is the size of Western Europe and one of the most sparsely populated and remote regions of the world.

Historical Background

For over a thousand years, the Inuit (Eskimo) people have lived in what is now Canada’s Northern region. Traditionally, they lived in small family groups scattered all over the Arctic area, moving among seasonal camps in

“Dancing in the Moonlight” by Irene Avaalaaqiaq
Irene Avaalaaqiaq is one of the best known Baker Lake tapestry artists. Her style is bold and colorful, much like the artist herself. Her subject matter tends always to be shamanic in origin and is based on Inuit myths, legends, and beliefs of traditional times. “My grandmother used to tell me stories . . . she told me that the animals used to turn into people. My grandmother told me stories to put me to sleep at night. I wondered how I could to something to put these stories my grandmother used to tell me into art” (from an artist interview, 2004).

pursuit of game and sea animals. Until the early 20th century, their way of life was little disturbed and their contacts with Southern Canada were  limited to occasional trade and some missionary expeditions.

Historically, Inuit women scraped and chewed caribou and seal skins to soften them in the course of creating clothes, using sinew for thread.
The Inuit experienced great turmoil and cultural upheaval in the mid-20th century, from a combination of natural factors and the inevitable advance of modernity. Severe fluctuations in their traditional hunting and fishing stock brought their nomadic lifestyle near collapse and many groups suffered deprivation and periods of starvation. In addition, the drop in the price of fur on the world markets took away from the Inuit one of their main sources of revenue. The Canadian government intervened and encouraged the creation of permanent settlements in the Arctic region around trading posts, missionary churches, and police stations. By the 1960s, nearly all Inuit lived in these communities, which also included schools, medical facilities, and stores.

“Transformation” by Irene Avaalaaqiaq

However, as part of a modern economy, the Inuit found themselves in a situation where none of their traditional survival skills were of any use. Job opportunities were very limited, few Inuit understood English or French, and they became dependent on social assistance. During this period of change, some Canadian government officers working in the Arctic noticed that the Inuit possessed a skill of great value that could improve their economic situation – an innate talent to adeptly fashion artifacts out of locally available materials. In order to survive in the inhospitable climate of the Arctic, the Inuit had developed a spontaneous creativity born out of the necessity to create tools and clothing with natural materials. These skills, adapted to their modern living conditions, quickly transformed these nomadic hunters into a nation of artists.

Starting from the 1950s, Inuit artist cooperatives were established with the help of the government of Canada in a few Northern villages. Stone, ivory, and bone sculptures first presented the artistic skills of the Inuit to the world, and rapidly gained tremendous acclaim. As the popularity and commercial value of Inuit sculpture climbed encouragingly, graphic artists started to make their mark, and gradually textile arts also gained prominence. Nowadays, art is one of the most important sources of revenue in Nunavut, and nearly one in three Inuit is involved in the artistic community.

From Seamstress to Artist

The application of women’s traditional sewing skills to the production of textile art first started in the settlement of Baker Lake, Nunavut, in the 1960s. After making wool duffle mittens, socks, and clothing, seamstresses used the leftover multi-colored pieces of fabric to make art to hang on walls. In embracing a foreign artistic medium, the women of Baker Lake made their wall hangings a vehicle for expressing centuries-old Inuit traditions, and gave birth to a uniquely Canadian art form.

Traditionally, sewing was a vital survival skill for Inuit living on the land. The women’s ingenuity and skillful stitching transformed animal hides into clothing, blankets, tents, and even into seafaring vessels such as the kayak. The entire family depended upon the sewing ability of women, from the men on the hunt to babies cuddled in their mother’s parka hood. In the long winter months in their igloos, as women decorated their parkas and garments with lavish colorful decorations, their daughters would learn to sew by observation. All these age-old skills have been transferred to the modern textile art of today’s Inuit women. These talented seamstresses easily apply their distinctive and complex abilities to their modern wall hangings, on which they depict the animals of the Arctic, the lifestyle of the Inuit, and the spiritual perceptions of their ancestors.

“These were all made in the homes of the artists,” Judith Burch says, “and frequently tell a story of the culture of the Inuit who live in Baker Lake. They are one of a kind and I am thrilled to be able to share them with others. I don’t even sew a button, so I am in awe! I have had the wonderful opportunity to know a number of the tapestry artists, which is a treat for me. I am passionate about what I am doing and I am delighted to have this collection be seen in Maine and at the Smithsonian, and hope it will continue to move much further afield.” The collection has been exhibited in Canadian embassies worldwide, including Guanajuato, Mexico; Monterey, Mexico; Mexico City; Tokyo; Beijing; Kunming; Guongquing; Nanjing; Shanghai; Seoul, Korea; UlaanBaatar, Mongolia; Jaipur, India; Riga, Latvia; Moscow to Salekhard, Siberia; Tourouevre, France; Chalons en Champagne, France; Paris; El Salvador; Guatemala; Paraguay; Costa Rica; Neuquen, Patagonia; Trinidad; and Tobago. “And I have been sent to most of these by the Canadian government to lecture,give classes, participate in  roundtables, and also work with 8-12 year olds to create their own culture on cloth.”

(by Ken Gross, Camden Public Library)