History of Inuit Art

Inuit Art is used by the Inuit as a means to celebrate their ancestors incredible skills, hardships and resourcefulness they had to have 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, I have come to the understanding that Inuit carvings were first made for the purpose of toys. and nothing more. These toys were very minimalist in nature. Like everything the Inuit made, they had a very utilitarian purpose to them and only used to comfort and amuse the children.

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.

In the 1830's, during the Hudson Bay's expansion to the North with the Fur trade, it was here that Europeans came into contact with these toy carvings for the first time. They immediately took notice and to the amusement of the Inuit, had a real fascination for them.

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 artifacts, and this is how the Inuit carving became known to the rest of the world for the first time.

Fast forward to Montreal, Expo 67'. One of the most praised and successful World fairs to ever take place, Up until this point, Inuit art was still something of a primitive art form and was not known or recognized entirely on the world stage. Expo 67' changed all of that by launching an impressive Native / Inuit art pavilion. It was here that the entire universe was treated to something so captivating, so unique and eye catching that a wake of headlines tremored overnight across the world. The crowds were stunned in awe with what these chic inuit carvings they were witnessing for the very first time. It was here that Inuit art came to the forefront of Canadian culture. To the visitors astonishment, they had never seen a form of art like this. It was very exotic, stylish and modernesque. People had never seen such amazing art like this before, and the Inuit / Native cultural pavillion became a smash hit for the Expo 67', and it is here, where Inuit art took its first giant leap.

From this point forward, Inuit art has achieved world status and artists have shifted new boundaries into perfecting their talents and techniques. Each new generation continue to push the envelope and carvings today have become spectacular pieces of art as opposed to the utilitarian toys they evolved from.

*Inuit Art toy image reference: Canadian Museum of Civilization.