Indigenous art can play a role in transmitting environmental knowledge between generations and across cultures, according to an article published recently in the journal Ecology and Society. Inuit people in northern Canada produce art that conveys their perceptions of environmental change to younger generations within their community and to the wider world
Authors Kaitlyn Rathwell and Derek Armitage interviewed 30 professional artists in the towns of Pangnirtung and Cape Dorset, both towns in Baffin Island in northern Canada where the decline of sea ice and changing seasons impact traditional hunting and food security. They selected the towns, both former trading posts for the Hudson Bay Company, for their “legacy of artmaking,” including textiles, carving, and printmaking. Cape Dorset is known as the “Capital of Inuit Art,” and carvers there use power tools on their work. The authors wrote, “While walking the streets, one hears the soundtrack of power tools omnipresent as carvers work constantly beside houses.” Local art cooperatives purchase the work and showcase it in national and international markets.
Among professional artists, the artwork is an important source of livelihood. Newer generations of Innit are relying on art for income generation in areas where work opportunities are otherwise limited to commercial fishing and local social services. International market demands, such as the unacceptability of seal skin canvases in European markets, have shifted the type of work that the Inuit produce.
Rathwell and Armitage also undertook a series of activities that led to the creation of a mural. They opened with a planning process to learn local priorities and build local support. These led to a full-day workshop, in which Inuit youth and youth from southern Canada discussed old and new times and sketched vignettes, which the group then integrated into a sketch for a mural. At a later workshop, they presented the mural to a group of elders, who then had a storytelling session about sea ice. The youth made sketches during this session. These activities overlapped with more formal art-making at a print shop and a studio.
Based on their interviews and observations of the workshops, the authors describe how knowledge is shared and recreated through art and art-making. The authors identify mechanisms by which art transmits and fosters knowledge. Firstly, artist embed messages and meanings in the objects they create. The artist Elisapee Ishulutaq stated, “When I was young the ice was not dangerous…now it’s getting dangerous and through art, artists can get [that message] out there.” Another mechanism was the sharing of knowledge through art, particularly across generations. The artist Toonoo Sharky said, “I learned by watching my grandfather and I took his place trying to imitate his carving at that time”
The authors find that the art-making provides a context that bring together the environmental knowledge of the elders and the skills of artists of different generations. One artist, Eddie Perrier, described how one printmaker, Jolly, taught him specific techniques while another, Eena, provided environmental knowledge. He said, “Jolly showed me how to draw icebergs and the mountains [from] his perspective.… she [Eena] is a really talented artist and printmaker and she is the one who told me the stories about…the snow on the mountains and about how the glaciers are changing. Where Jolly was just showing me how to draw it, not the story behind it.”
Another artist, Andrew Qappik, described recently making a “a large watercolor painting a couple weeks ago at the print shop. Painted the fjord where there use to be a lot of glaciers [and] now the glaciers are not there as much as they used to be. That is what I believe I’m showing in the painting.”
The authors conclude that Inuit in both communities use art to provide livelihoods and to strengthen their communities. They show that the process of making art itself reinforces social ties and cultural understandings. Moreover, the techniques used in the art support not only the production of items for sale, but also maintain the traditional crafts, such as kamik or hand-sewn sealskin boots, which are used on hunting trips. In these ways, the art contributes to the resilience of an indigenous culture in a changing environment.
To see a video about Andrew Qappik from the National Film Board of Canada, click here.