Face to Face with Inuit Art

“Cool!” This is the response of a student on an Inuit art tour when they see the Kakivak, a fishing spear made from Caribou antler and sinew.

They get to poke their fingers into a large, smooth walrus skull and move the long ivory tusks while Colleen Leduc, one of the WAG’s arts educators, describes the history of Inuit people. “Touching the pieces makes imagining another way of life easier. It adds depth to the classroom experience.”

“Holding a tool like the ulu in their hands, and then seeing it in artwork like the works featured in Small Worlds a show of miniature carvings on now, adds another layer to their learning,” Colleen explains. “Kids are able to link the tool they hold in their hands and art they see on the walls with their school lessons to gain a deeper understanding of the resilient people who live in the Arctic.”

“We use storybooks like Hide and Seek by Michael Arvaarluk and Takannaaluk by Herve Paniaq, and play games so that kids make connections to their Inuit peers”. While hockey is the most popular team sport played in the Arctic today, the kids are also fascinated to hear about games that were played when the cold temperatures and darkness brought people together inside a tent or iglu, such as the Ajagaq, which is a type of ball-and-pin game in which a bone drilled with holes is tossed into the air and caught on a pointed bone that is attached with a cord. A story was then told a bit at a time with each successful catch.

Fred Ford, WAG Board Member and Chair of the Manitoba Inuit Association, often brings in his collection of tools and games and keeps kids rapt with stories about Inuit culture, history and art. “Imagine sitting in an iglu, no TV or internet, and these are what you have to play with,” he says holding up an Nuklugaaq, which is a piece of bone pierced with holes and suspended in an iglu, that the players try to hit the holes with long thin sticks. Given the large number of artworks found depicting games, they were clearly an important part of Inuit life and helped families enjoy the long winter nights and share stories from one generation to the next.

With increasing demand for art programming across the province, Colleen also teaches regularly online, bringing remote students with her virtually through the WAG galleries. “I wasn’t sure I’d be able to connect online, but it feels like I am right there with the students.”

The Inuit art tour is the most popular and requested program offered for school groups, with thousands of Manitoba children experiencing these enriched moments of connection. Through expanded learning space and enhanced programming, the Inuit Art Centre will meet the rising call for Indigenous-related education and programming. When the centre opens its doors in 2020, the number of students able to take part in these virtual and live art classes, and tours will increase from 25,000 to 100,000 each year.

Learning will be encouraged to take place all around the Inuit Art Centre. The Art Connection Gallery is one of the welcoming education spaces being built. The intimate gallery will feature hands-on art activities for school and community groups, families and the public. The space has been designed to get up close and personal with art and art-making, to create unforgettable experiences for people to come together over art.

With guest educators, curators, Elders, storytellers and artists, it will be a hub for programming, community connections and education in Manitoba and across Canada. Colleen is looking forward to the transformation and the possibility of even a global reach. “We will be able to meet more communities, and truly connect.”