George Marcus, professor of political science, led a gallery talk at the Williams College Museum of Art (WMCA) on his exhibition “Teaching with Art: Inuit Sculpture” last Tuesday. The Inuit exhibition fits well with WCMA’s recent interest in the alternative styles, cultures and nontraditional readings of art history.
The exhibition is in conjunction with Marcus’ Winter Study class, “The Development of Inuit Art,” and encompasses his personal collection of Inuit sculpture. Marcus, while not affiliated with the art history department, has been studying Inuit art for 35 years, which is, incidentally, the same length of time as he has been a professor at Williams. His study has become his personal passion and hobby.
Marcus explained that the Inuit, who are typically â€“ and incorrectly â€“ referred to as “Eskimos,” inhabit the northern lands of Canada and live in fixed settlements on the Baffin Islands of Hudson Bay. The tribe has been living in these areas for centuries, and continue to inhabit them to this day.
In the extreme climates in which these people lived, there was very little accessible raw material. Wood was difficult to find; metal was introduced as recently as a century ago; stone was highly valuable for tools. Essentially, Marcus maintains, the Inuit lived outside the sphere of art. The making of art was, in fact, considered a waste of resources; art as we know it, which is used for celebration, decoration or critique, had no place in their world.
Marcus went on to detail that as a nomadic people, they followed the migration of the caribou and marine prey and in many ways they were completely detached from the modern world. During the 1940’s and 50’s, though, because of the Cold War, Canadians started worrying about the legal status of the Inuit, who were sharing close borders with Russia. Thrust into the cash-based world of settlements, it was obvious that there would be certain difficulties turning a subsistent people into a capitalist society.
During this period, a Canadian artist named James Houston saw possibilities in the Inuit’s highly developed ability to carve â€” thus, the Inuit found an opportunity to make money. The Inuit people adopted sculpting and, later, printmaking. Consequently, over the past 30 years, artists have grown in such numbers that the proportion of people living off their art in the Inuit society is greater than that of any other nation.
Marcus spoke of the careful controlling that some of the artists retain, the generations of artists that have sprung to life, the difficult process of shipping the art into lower Canada, where it will eventually be shipped across the continent and beyond and of the great separation between Inuit art and typical Western art.
Marcus also claimed that the Inuit are eager to make art, yet it has never before been integral to their life. Because they have not been affected by the rules of the contemporary art world, their art has an elevated importance vital to their economy; such a trait distinguishes it from art anywhere else in the world.
As Marcus described, many of the Inuit pieces give central importance to strength â€” a kind of passive power almost unknown to our society, a vigor that would allow a hunter to remain motionless for hours so that he could catch a seal that would feed his family. Also, Marcus placed great emphasis on family, as was evident in a piece entitled “Mother and Child.” Marcus told us that family commitment in Inuit society is beyond Western understanding, and in this piece the “child” is merely a face on the heavy and broad stone body of the “mother.” The two figures are fused together by the same body.
Most of the art is focused on the animals with which the Inuit interact, including seals, polar bears and domesticated dogs, or the lifestyle of the hunter and the “family unit.” The exhibit itself houses about thirty sculptures and prints, some of them by Inuit artists whose names are just now becoming well known, such as Kenojuak, Onnark and Pauta. It is worth going to the exhibit just to see the dancing polar bear sculptures, several pieces which Marcus discussed only briefly, but are the most memorable part of the show.
Many of the prints, while simple, are incredibly colorful and filled with life â€” they are truly unlike any art that I, a student of art history, have ever seen. I must admit my skepticism of a style and type of art which is based solely on commodity and capitalism, since Marcus’ talk made it clear that the Inuit might not make art at all if it were not profitable. However, Marcus’ collection is truly remarkable and his discussion of his personal admiration revealed the innate value of a type of art so outside the typical canon and understanding of traditional art history.