Looking at the 20 textile wall hangings that comprise Nunavut’s Culture on Cloth, a travelling exhibition currently on display at the Yukon Arts Centre Public Art Gallery, it’s near impossible to avoid getting drawn into the construction of each work.
Created by artists from Baker Lake, Nunavut, the collection shows a wide range of approaches to the Inuit art form, which traditionally consists of scraps of leftover duffle wool, arranged and sewn to depict the culture and stories of Inuit.
Up close, figures which appear to be made of cut-outs of fabric are often in fact intricately stitched mosaics of felt, betraying an astonishing amount of work on the part of their creator.
However, at a distance, the 20 hangings attempt an even larger feat - depicting thousands of years of Inuit culture in seemingly simple, iconic images.
There are hunters at work against snowy night skies, abstractions of the tundra, depictions of spirits, and, in a nod to more contemporary iterations of a form which emerged in the absence of written tradition in Inuit culture, a quilt-like work which reads: “Nunavut Our Land.”
There are enough stories hinted at in these Inuit wall hangings to keep a scholar busy for several lifetimes, so perhaps its no surprise that the exhibitions’ curator, Judith Varney Burch, has dedicated herself to collecting, interpreting, and exhibiting these works for almost 30 years.
In fact, Nunavut’s Culture on Cloth is the second travelling exhibit of Inuit wall hangings curated by Varney Burch: the first, Culture on Cloth, has been making its way around the world for the past 10 years, exposing the stories and traditions of Nunavut Inuit to Chinese, Mongolian, Latvian, Russian, Korean, French Mexican, Japanese, American, and Guatemalan audiences.
Varney Burch, who will present a free curator’s talk on the exhibit this Saturday at the Yukon Arts Centre, has a personal story that would make a pretty compelling tapestry of its own. Originally hailing from Illinois and now residing in Charlottesville, Virginia, Varney Burch is an unlikely advocate for Inuit culture, but an undoubtedly passionate one nonetheless.
“I first saw Inuit art in Nova Scotia, where we have a house,” explains Varney Burch, who has arrived in Whitehorse after a delay-filled trip from Charlottesville.
“It piqued my interest, and I thought it was interesting and totally different. From there, I spoke with a friend who was from Boston but also spent her summers in Nova Scotia, who collected Inuit art. So we went together to Toronto and Montreal, and of course every door was opened to us, because this was 30 years ago, and no one was (researching or curating Inuit art.)”
Shortly thereafter, Varney Burch contacted the head of the Inuit Art Section at the Bureau of Indian and Northern Affairs in Ottawa and drove from Montreal through a blizzard to get a better look at the national collection.
Upon viewing Inuit sculptures and wall hangings, Varney Burch immediately noted the deep connection between Inuit art and the northern landscape, and insisted she could not research or collect the work without visiting the land.
“It would have just been like collecting souvenirs if I didn’t have a sense of the people and the land the art came from,” she recalls.
Sensing Varney Burch’s passion and curiosity, the curator arranged for her to visit Arctic Canada, and from there everything fell into place.
Since then, Varney Burch has become one of the world’s most respected authorities on Inuit art. She’s a research collaborator at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Arctic Studies Centre, and runs the Arctic Inuit Art Gallery in Virginia.
She’s also presented lectures on Inuit art all over the world, and with the Culture on Cloth touring exhibit, created a forum for cultural exchange with residents of Nunavut, having students around the world create their own wall hangings representing their culture, and then having those hangings sent to Baker Lake.
“There’s a lot of interest in the North and Inuit art around the world right now,” says Varney Burch, who notes that the original Culture on Cloth exhibit is now showing at the Smithsonian, and that Nunavut’s Culture on Cloth will hopefully make an international circumpolar tour next year. “It’s a world that most people don’t know.”
Varney Burch is hopeful that will change, and with each new stop for her touring exhibition, she has more hope for championing Inuit culture.
“These (wall hangings) are an important educational tool that work on all levels. I’ve worked with university professors and even grade school children and used these ... I spoke at a conference in Ottawa recently - I don’t know why I was asked to speak - and there were all these important people there - government heads, corporate heads, tourism heads. And I got up and said, ‘200 years from now, nobody is going to have the slightest idea who you are. You’re totally insignificant. Your job is insignificant. None of it matters. Look what it says on the Canadian $20 bill: Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?’ And I think that says it all.”
Nunavut’s Culture on Cloth is on display at the Yukon Art Centre Public Art Gallery through August 25. A free lecture by Judith Varney Burch will take place at the gallery Saturday June 30 at 1 p.m.