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A cold reality, captured

Stunning arctic exhibit highlights the art of a culture as it balances old and new

SALEM -- In the Inuktitut language spoken by the Inuit, who for hundreds of generations have occupied a vast arctic expanse west of Greenland, the word "Nunavut" means "our land," while Inuit means "the people."

The ancient connection between the land and the people shifted in 1999, when Nunavut became a Canadian territory, the size of Western Europe, with a population of 25,000. The pace of the outside world's infiltration into an ancient culture recently plagued by crime, poverty, drug abuse, and high suicide rates speeded up -- and the Nunavut Government Collection of Art was formed, as a way of documenting the happy side of that culture.

The collection's very first appearance is at the Peabody Essex Museum, and it's stunning.

All the work is from the past 50 years. Some of it -- haunting stone sculptures of both people and animals -- comes from a 3,500-year tradition of carving. Other media -- including printmaking and video -- are relatively new to the Inuit artists.

Threading through the show is the Inuit people's reverence for the animals that feed and clothe them and provide materials for objects both functional and decorative. Owls, geese, ravens, and caribou populate the prints of artists including Annie Kilabuk Jr., Ida Qappik, Kenojuak Ashevak, and others. Printmaking, introduced to Inuit culture by Canadian artist James Houston only a half-century ago, is the exhibition's dominant medium, and one in which the Inuit have become highly proficient. There's nothing of "primitive" art in these skillful images.

Patterning plays a critical role in the Inuktitut script, which is on the show's multilingual labels. Rows of crisp, taut angles and curves engage in jazzy choreography. Patterning also governs many of the prints' compositions, including the school of fish leaping like a corps de ballet and the artful -- and unnatural -- arrangement of an owl's feathers in lithographs by Ashevak.

Born in 1927, Ashevak grew up hunting and moving from camp to camp; eventually, she became the most celebrated of the Inuit artists. Her adopted son, Arnaqu Ashevak, is likewise talented. His etching "Qilalugannguat Tunniit (Tattooed Whales)" graces the cover of the show's sumptuous catalog. The pair of whales curve gently against a dark ground; their backs are covered with spirals, diamond shapes, undulating lines, and other motifs. These "tattoos" are the artist's way of honoring the animal that, more than any other, keeps his people alive.

Before the advent of printmaking, Inuit art was largely three-dimensional. Ivory carvings 3,500 years old -- masks, polar bears, and functional objects -- have been found in Nunavut. By the 19th century, the Inuits were selling carvings as souvenirs, and in the late 1940s, Houston arranged for artists to trade carvings for credit at Hudson's Bay Company stores, which, for better or worse, further altered their culture.

Carving was also a way to preserve it. Thomas Ugjuk's soapstone "Congregation" illustrates the value placed on community and collaboration, through rows of small figures that are inextricably interlocked. This helpful spirit extends to Peter Irniq's "Inuksuk," a rugged stone cairn -- made especially for this exhibition -- of the sort that guides nomadic peoples to places where game can be found. The cairn is a perfect example of the way the Inuit people, their land, and the animals who share that land are intertwined.

The objects in the PEM show that are meant to be worn are more than functional. A necklace by Cecelia Tungilik, made of soapstone, caribou bone, and fox teeth, looks like a fierce protective amulet; a reconstructed shaman's coat made of caribou fur bears the image of a pair of human hands reaching toward a baby-like form. It's not clear if the infant is human or another sort of animal. And maybe it doesn't matter. The Inuit make far less of a distinction than we do between people and the planet's other creatures.

Hence some notably charming clay sculptures, including Joseph Patterk's "Legend of the Family Who Traveled on a Wild Goose." A series of figures riding an oversized goose, it casts the bird as a potent but benign force, more powerful than the people riding it, but also out to give them a good time. The piece is also a nod to the universal practice of mothers telling bedtime stories to put their children to sleep.

This extraordinary show, a joint effort of the PEM and the Government of Nunavut, is presented thematically, with sections devoted to subjects including community and family. With the objects come unusually poetic labels and wall texts that incorporate the eloquent words of Inuit elders. Hubert Amarualik, for instance, explains that a particular patch of Nunavut land could only be occupied for three years. The camp would then move on, to allow the game animals that were its sustenance to replenish themselves.

The Peabody Essex Museum is the perfect venue for the collection's debut for two reasons. One, PEM already has strong holdings in Native American art. And two, the museum treats "fine" art, craft, and ethnographic material as equals. It does not observe any hierarchy among the forms of material culture, and never has. This is an attitude that "high" art purists used to disdain, but one that has recently gained in popularity in museum circles.

The Nunavut collection is presented in a spare setting. Each object gets plenty of breathing room. There are no dioramas, no corny contextualization. The sophisticated substitute is filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk's ambitious "Nunavut (Our Land)," 13 installments, half an hour each, shown on several monitors in the galleries. In one episode dogs pull a sled bearing an entire family, heaped in furs. They travel across a wild white plain that looks endless. They make camp, building themselves a house out of blocks of snow. The father teaches a son to hunt seals, shooting one, then dragging it out of the water. The family carves up the animal, eating the bloody raw meat with great gusto. A soundtrack of singing and chanting fills some of the vast void they inhabit: Music is integral to handing down unwritten history.

From Australia to South Africa to the Arctic, erstwhile colonizers have, out of good intentions and/or guilt, harnessed indigenous cultures, as the Canadians have with the Inuit. They've introduced materials and media, capitalized on existing subject matter, and tried to teach native peoples to make art that is marketable and even museum-worthy.

While aesthetically the works in the PEM show are undeniably that -- forceful, bold, and ringing with authority -- the ongoing life and identity of Inuit art are trickier to call.

There's a cautionary essay on this subject by Kunuk in the exhibition catalog. Born in 1957 in a sod house on his family's winter campsite, Kunuk started making little sculptures at age 12, selling them to buy tickets to the 16mm movies shown in the local community hall. Years later, he did the same thing on a larger scale, to buy a Betamax camera, portapak, VCR, and television, to record stories and a way of life he felt were slipping away. The "Nunavut (Our Land)" series of videos was one part of his desire to restore "4000 years of oral history silenced by 50 years of priests, schools and cable TV," he writes, adding, ominously: "The death of history is happening in my lifetime."

Our Land: Contemporary Art From the Arctic
At: the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through Jan. 30 

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