Nunatsiaq Online
COMMENTARY: Around the Arctic November 04, 2011 - 2:34 pm

New horizons for northern arts

Innovative collaborations between arts organizations

NUNATSIAQ NEWS
Participants in a ceramics workshop held recently at the Matchbox Gallery in Rankin Inlet. (PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM SHIRLEY)
Participants in a ceramics workshop held recently at the Matchbox Gallery in Rankin Inlet. (PHOTO COURTESY OF JIM SHIRLEY)

JIM SHIRLEY
Special to Nunatsiaq News

I first came to the north, to Rankin Inlet, in the late 1970s. Even though it was at the very end of an important historic period for Inuit, one could see the forces that would play an important role particularly in the growth and development of the arts.

In the Kivalliq (then called the Keewatin), every community had its own government-sponsored project encouraging creative activities and artists, much of it supporting the idea that Inuit creativity was an essential part of survival from the very beginnings of traditional life. To my eyes, there was always a close connection between solving the problems that came up in Traditional life, and the kinds of skills Inuit applied to their work as artists.

Creativity was not some sort of incidental, secondary part of living, it was the cornerstone of surviving in conditions that could change, without warning, in a fraction of a second.

While I share, with most southerners, only a very superficial knowledge of traditional life, I have noticed that one of its most important features was the ability of different people, with different personalities and backgrounds to work together to solve problems, to collaborate when the need came up to do so. 

What a wonderful and important part of life that traditional sense of collaboration, cooperation must have been. With its emphasis on folks going their own individual way, the introduction of a southern lifestyle and values must have been a dramatic and difficult change back in the time when modern communities were created. 

Recently, I had a brief, but interesting conversation with an important curatorial figure who has been working with Inuit art for the past twenty years or so. Our ceramics workshop has been experimenting with the idea of more than one artist working on a particular piece — a collaborative approach which she was at odds with.

She talked about the artist as a noble individual who works on his own, with his own thoughts, ideas and expressions being at the center of his creation. I thought that the idea of people working together on a piece of art had as much, if not more, of a foundation in Inuit traditions as the idea of an individual artist doing a creative work.

The conversation ended with us “agreeing to disagree.” Nevertheless, it left me wondering whether southerners (myself included) have the right to define what artists from another culture can, or cannot say, or can, or cannot do.

Still, every once in a while (somehow or other), I am reminded that Inuit art is a “business,” one which tends to serve southern interests more than it does Inuit self-expression and creativity.

I have to admit, though, that our very brief discussion is still ringing in my ears. Southern values place more importance on the individual than they do on the group. The idea even extends beyond individual artists into artistic organizations, who come to see themselves as separate and distinct from other artistic organizations.

Rarely, do you see collaborations between arts-based organizations, many of whom view operations similar to theirs as competitors. Given the scarcity of markets and outlets to sell or display their work, as well as limited sources of government funding and other supports, it is not difficult to see how they would be in competition with one another.

Nevertheless, there are the rare exceptions in which organizations collaborate, in the interest of benefiting the artists they serve. Ever since I started the Matchbox Gallery, I have dreamed about the possibility of, one day, working with the artists of Iqaluit. 

Thanks to the vision of Beata Hejnowicz, I recently had the opportunity to present a one-month, ceramics workshop to students of the fine arts program. All of these students were involved in a program to learn jewelry creation.

Beata’s programming vision is to expose her students to other media — including, drawing, sculpture, painting and ceramics — in addition to jewelry, hopefully to expand the creative insights they bring to their work as jewelry artists. It was a new and enjoyable experience for me and I was very pleased with the results.

This “foundation” approach to arts learning is well established in southern arts schools, but not so frequently applied or understood by northern arts groups. This is one of the first collaborations on behalf of enhancing northern arts learning that I can recall.

There were positive outcomes from a variety of levels. Arctic College has enhanced its ceramics infrastructure, and now has Inuit who have the beginnings of hand-building skills. The Matchbox Gallery also brought one of its Inuit ceramists to lead workshops, demonstrating his skills for the Iqaluit students, and broadening his experience as an instructor.

The idea of collaborations that put the interests of the artists first is consistent with the approach of the Matchbox Gallery over the last 25 years. We have created an outstanding collection of works in ceramics and other media mainly because we encourage our artists to develop as “whole” people, to take their place in their communities with confidence and pride.

The arts have benefited them and their communities, as well as becoming an important contributor to the economy of Nunavut. We’ve demonstrated that this can be done without damaging our legacy to the future generations of Nunavut.

What we need now is for the political and business interests of Nunavut to expand their own understanding of the contributions of the arts and artists of Nunavut.

I hope we will see more collaboration between arts and business institutions, beyond limited self-interests and with the well-being of our beautiful home in mind. If they can do this, we and our future generations will all be the better.

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