Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 1

A six-part series of articles that brings light to Inuit Art history and its colonial roots.

Through the promotion of Inuit Art in the mid 20th century, images of an “authentic” Inuit culture became accessible to the world. Taking a post-colonial approach, I evaluate how the promotion of “authenticity” is a key facet to how Inuit Art is perceived.

Inuit Art History and Expressions of Identity

The Contemporary Period of Inuit Art known as post-1949 marked a pivotal change in Inuit Art history and Canadian art history alike. This period marked the transition from semi-nomadic life to settlement life (settlements around the Hudson Bay Company Trading Posts). The preceding Historic Period began in the 1770s when contact with Southern (non-Inuit) travellers exploring the Arctic developed. An interest in Inuit culture and artefacts led to a trade of handicrafts and trinkets otherwise known as “tourist art”.

It is impossible to form a conclusive analysis on the direction of Inuit Art without addressing its place within Western art history. The direct colonising influence it posed on Inuit Art has created a strong primitivist assumption to Inuit Art that, to an extent, exists today. The traditional and authentic are not synonymous. Art as an expression of cultural identity is where its authenticity is defined by its geographical context. For much of the contemporary art period, this idea of authenticity expected Inuit Art to rely on forms considered traditional as dictated by what the market desired.

This series explores the extent to which Inuit Art remains subject to the colonial condition, despite 21st-century developments through an analysis of how perceptions of authenticity and tradition have evolved through the contemporary period. It is important to note that this dissertation does not challenge the authenticity of Inuit Art as an “Inuit” art form but rather the “authentic presumptions” created by non-Inuit. Even though its art history is relatively recent, Inuit Art provides audiences with a perspective on how primitivism creates a canonised vision of Arctic culture with no reference to the impact of modernity on their culture.

Implementing a primarily post-colonial approach this Series of articles will focus on key aspects from Inuit Art history to assess the extent to which presenting an authentic view of Inuit Art is still a key driving force for Inuit Art production. It should be noted that this will not be a survey of Inuit Art history. Rather, it will show the reader three significant areas of its history, the methodologies and aesthetics contributing to its development. To a larger extent, it will also act as a critique on the limits of formalism and challenge the Western centrality of art.

In order to highlight the significance of presenting an authentic view, this series will first discuss how neo-colonialism and modernist art theory created a vision of an “authentic” Inuit life. Secondly, it will look at Inuit reactions towards modernity and how this challenged the perceived authenticity in Inuit Art within the context of postmodernism. Lastly, it will assess how the former and latter themes have created a paradox of authenticity for a new generation of artists today. This analysis is intended to show the significance of authenticity in Inuit Art despite 21st-century developments to re-negotiate its place within the Contemporary Art Paradigm.

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