Inuits re-create their world in cloth

November 18, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

You don't often meet an art form that springs into being spontaneously, flourishes for two generations and then dies, but that may be the fate of the art of Inuit textile wall hangings so colorfully on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The Inuit, more commonly known as Eskimos, until the mid-20th RTC century lived a nomadic hunting and fishing existence. But in the 1950s famine coupled with a government requirement that they send their children to school drove Inuits to permanent settlements, one of which is Baker Lake in the Canadian Northwest Territories.

There, a group of women who had been trained to sew clothing for their families out of necessity were encouraged to establish a cottage industry sewing Inuit-designed clothes for sale. Some began making appliqued pictures out of scraps left from the clothes they made. And thus was born the art of Inuit wall hangings.

The results can be seen in "Northern Lights," which brings together the work of a dozen of the leading figures of this art. Organized by BMA curators Katharine W. Fernstrom and Anita Jones, the show fairly sings with these colorful textiles. To make them, the women cut out figures in felt, sew them onto wool backings and then decorate them with stitches adding color, pattern and texture.

These works are delightfully varied both in subject matter and in artists' styles. In general, they look back to the pre-Baker Lake days of life on the land, its seasons, wildlife, beliefs and myths. Miriam Qiyuk's "Spring Camp" depicts fishing and hunting in soft, vernal colors. The same artist uses deeper tones for her "Untitled" storytelling hanging about the legend of the hero Qiviuq's adventures with members of the animal kingdom. Naomi Ityi records the drum dance popular on special occasions in her "Untitled," while Marion Tuu'luuq deals with the Inuit legend of the creation of the sun and the moon in "One Man's Dream."

Jessie Oonark, who was born in 1906 and died in 1985, created works marked by a style of bold, simple figures on unconventionally shaped backgrounds -- circles and igloo-forms, such as the double-igloo form of "Shaman Calling Spirit Helpers." Marion Tuu'luuq's designs are heavily patterned, as in the concentric circles of "One Man's Dream." Janet Kigusiuq specializes in variations of scale, creating fish bigger than people and animals in "The Worlds Above and Below the Ice." Ruth Qaulluaryuk creates beautiful, almost abstract all-over patterns of leaves, water, clouds, ice, in her series "Four Seasons on the Tundra."

It seems a pity that this art may be doomed to extinction, but curators Fernstrom and Jones say that, now that the Inuit live in communities where they can buy clothing, younger generations may not develop the sewing skills that older generations developed out of necessity.

And as life on the land grows more remote, younger people may not have the same interest in the subject matter that makes these works so idiosyncratic. We are fortunate to have this refreshingly different, original and lively art.


What: "Northern Lights: Inuit Textile Art from the Canadian Arctic"

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Jan. 30

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

Call: (410) 396-7100

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