Inuit Art History

The history of Inuit Art deals directly with Inuit people and their interpretations of Inuit life, culture and the daily struggles necessary to survive. It is a celebration among the Inuit today, one which rejoices their ancestors and how they had to rely on such incredible skill, hardships and resourcefulness in order to preserve and pass on life from one generation to the next. Inuit art is used as a derivative of expressing these stories and their way of life, past and present.

The Canadian North is a vast region with only a handful of sparsely settled communities located throughout (basically the size of Australia with only 40,000 people). As such, it is only natural for the people in each community to have their own versions and interpretations of where Inuit art began and why. For the most part, during my time living in the North, I have come to the understanding from most Inuit people that Inuit carvings were first made primarily for the purpose of children's toys. and nothing more. These toys were very minimalist in nature. Like everything the Inuit made, these toys had a utilitarian purpose only and were used for the children's comfort and amusement.

In the 1830's when the Hudson's Bay company began establishing the fur trade, trading posts were part of their expansion. This is how Europeans came into contact with the Inuit. It was here that these little toy carvings took notice among the traders and to the amusement of the Inuit, were a real fascination.

Like many resourceful and inventive things the Inuit did, the Europeans thought these toys were amazing creations and an astute depiction and artifact of the Inuit people. To the Inuit, they were simply toys. None-the-less, fur traders would trade day-to-day items for these toy artifacts. It was a good trade for both sides in my opinion.

Inuit people utilized simple everyday objects to create beautiful art. The early Inuit Art includes materials such as animal hides, driftwood, stones, and animal bones. The Inuit used these materials to create workable pieces of majesty that surprised and astounded anyone who came in contact with it. Women made clothing and shoes from animal hides, stitching each piece together. They even created their own needles and thread for the sewing process from animal bones and sinew. Interestingly enough, many of the fashion pieces that were created many years ago are also used today. The Mukluk boot historically made of seal skin or caribou, has been modernized and can be found for sale. The anorak and parka are still made and sold by the Inuit artists today. Inuit people started many fashion trends.  

In regards to carved objects, many of the Inuit Art pieces were depicted to show day to day activities that the Inuit were involved in, such as hunting. Since the materials were made from common things that could be found within the communities, Inuit Art was a very important part of the culture. The knives within the Inuit culture were made from walrus ivory, which is a work of art on its own. The Inuit hunters carved much of their art by hand and they mostly used ivory and bone. 

During the Dorset and Pre-Dorset cultures, the Inuit Art consisted of carved birds, bears, walruses, and seals, as well as human figurines. Art in the form of small masks were also found from this era. The Inuit Art during the Ipiutak culture was one that will be remembered for its elaborate design and intricate handiwork. Some Inuit artwork that is found from this era includes geometric designs, along with anthropomorphic and animal designs. The Inuit Art from the Thule culture was one that consisted of tools and weapons that could be considered art and also could be considered things that were used on a day-to-day basis. Found were art relics such as utensils, combs, buttons, needle cases, cooking pots, cases, spears and harpoons, as well as a host of other products made to make life more appealing and interesting. The Inuit created art within their tools, pots and pans, etc. that were beautiful and ornate. The 16th century was the era when the Inuit started to barter with others in the area. They traded miniature ivory tools and things such as boats, musical instruments, rifles.

Since the year of 1945, Inuit Art has taken a turn upward. There is now a great attraction to Inuit carvings. Due to the influence of some notable people who have expressed appreciation for Inuit Art and also wanted new and more engaging pieces, the Inuit adopted new-age art techniques.

* Inuit Art toy image reference: Canadian Museum of Civilization