Preserving Culture, History in Art: The North Baffin Drawings

Norman Vorano, Inuit art, North Baffin, North Baffin drawings, history, art, culture, Queen's University, Queen's National Scholar in Indigenous Art and Material CultureThe 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 $4000 grant to fund his journey, he wanted these individuals to record their fleeting way of life, their feelings and their cherished traditions.

Ryan did not want to influence what was drawn, so he gave little to no instruction. About a month after distributing supplies, Ryan 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 of the day. Upon his return to Cape Dorset, 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 Dr. 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, 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,” according to 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.”

Norman Vorano, Inuit art, North Baffin, North Baffin drawings, history, art, culture, Queen's University, Queen's National Scholar in Indigenous Art and Material CultureFortunately, 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. 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

Over 50 years after Terry Ryan solicited drawings that document the beginnings of profound change in the Arctic, Vorano is dusting off the North Baffin collection. His aim is to make them available to the public and, most importantly, to the communities they came from.

Vorano is curating a travelling exhibition of the collection, a joint venture by the Agnes and the Canadian Museum of History, which acquired the drawings in 2014. Debuting at the Agnes in January 2017, the exhibition will not be static; rather, by working with various institutional partners in Nunavut, it will feature audio and video interpretations of the drawings by the artists and members of the communities where they originated, collected by Vorano as he retraced Ryan’s 1964 journey to Canada’s last frontier.

In the second phase of the project, 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,” says Vorano. “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.”

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