Prehistoric Arctic Art

Canada's Arctic has been inhabited by humans for at least 4,000 years. The first people currently known to have produced a significant amount of figurative art belonged to the Dorset culture (c. 600 B.C.-1,000 A.D.). The objects they carved from bone, ivory and wood included birds, bears and other land and sea animals, human figures, masks and maskettes, and face clusters. It is believed that these works had a definite magic or religious intent, and that they were worn as amulets or used in shamanic rituals.

The people of the Thule culture (ancestors of today's Inuit) migrated from northern Alaska around 1,000 A.D. and drove or wiped out the earlier Dorset inhabitants. Thule art was based on Alaskan prototypes; it included some human and animal figures, but consisted primarily of the graphic embellishment of utilitarian objects such as combs, needle cases, harpoon toggles and gaming pieces. The decorative or figurative incised markings on these objects do not seem to have had religious significance.



Inuit Sculpture in Recent Times

A colder climate disrupted the Thule culture in the 16th century, about the same time as contact with the white man began. Inuit began to barter with whalers, missionaries and other foreigners. Carvings of animals, as well as replicas of tools and western-style objects, most often fashioned from ivory, became common trade goods. The first few centuries of European contact are usually referred to as the Historic Period.

The contemporary period of Inuit art began in the late 1940s. When the federal government recognized the potential economic benefit to the Inuit, it actively encouraged the development and promotion of Inuit sculpture, greatly assisted by the Hudson's Bay Company and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild. Inuit-owned cooperatives were established in the 1950s and 60s in most Arctic communities, as well as art marketing agencies in southern Canada. As well as providing much needed income in isolated Arctic villages, Inuit sculpture has achieved an international reputation as a major contemporary art form.

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Inuit art in Britain

Inuit Art was first shown in Britain in 1953 at Bond Street’s Gimpel Fils gallery London to celebrate the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In the 1960’s this expanded to the Waddington’s Gallery in Cork Street London and then for the first time within an entirely ethnographic setting at the Antrobus Gallery in Covent Garden, London. This early period is often referred to as the ‘halcyon days of Inuit Art’ with revues and splendid critique in both the national newspapers and magazines of the time including Tiffany’s.

Although some of the major retail outlets in London have had dalliances in Inuit art, only rarely have other galleries embraced the difficulties in exhibiting such a remote and until recently inaccessible art form. In 1982 as an extension to their private collection the proprietors of the Narwhal Inuit (then Eskimo) Art Gallery continued this presence in Britain presenting exhibitions the length and breadth of the country from the Channel Islands to the Shetland Islands. By 1993 the Narwhal Gallery was the sole remaining exhibitor of Inuit Art and has now exhibited in at more than 30 national & international Contemporary Art Fairs.

Scotland has been particularly receptive to the many exhibitions that have graced its art fairs and galleries over the last 15 years following on from long historical ties to Canada and in turn through the loyal support of collectors.

Established in 1982, The Narwhal Inuit Art Gallery is the only British gallery dedicated to Inuit Art (previously known and marketed as Eskimo Art), exhibiting sculptures in stone, relic bone, horn and antique marine ivory, along with fine examples of graphic art dating back 50 years.

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