First, an experiment: conjure up, if you will, a mental image of the arctic. More than likely, it is overwhelmingly white with ice and snow, perhaps with a little chilling blue. Look here for examples from the world of Google. Now, try to imagine some Inuit art. Not sure? Find some samples here.
The average vision of the arctic—stark, barren, monochromatic—is at tremendous odds with the bounty of art from the communities that thrive there. Inuit art is vibrant, filled with movement, colourful, even playful. K.M. Graham, one of Canada’s preeminent abstract artists, draws attention to this cognitive dissonance with “Arctic I: Sovereignty in Pink,” on display now at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. The title piece features an expansive, oblong stain of bright Barbie-pink. Down the centre are smatterings of ochre, white, tomato red, and black. It’s almost noisy. It’s even—dare I say—warm.
Her other pieces similarly contradict such perceptions. “Arctic Whiplash,” for instance, is a kinetic, almost dizzying rendering of the aurora borealis in magenta and pink. “Hudson Strait Cliff” is a rather simple—but compelling—tusche ink landscape. It shows a densely populated, snowy ledge. Populated with what? Perhaps people, perhaps animals; it’s open to interpretation. What the image doesn’t show is a barren, deserted outcrop of ice with not a living thing in sight.
One of the most riveting displays in the exhibit is the juxtaposition of “Lucy Drawing in my House Studio, Cape Dorset” beside “Spring Camp”. The former is Graham’s: a hazy pencil line drawing of Inuit artist Lucy Qinnuayuak at work. Lines are whisper-faint and tentative, the figure undetailed. She crafted the piece while the latter artist was working beside her. Hanging, then, next to “Lucy” in startling contrast is “Spring Camp,” Qinnuayuak’s stone cutting on paper. Bold black lines create a bustling Inuit camp: dogs circling, pelts and fish hanging to dry, a number of family members puttering inside the iglu.
The dissonance between the two pieces is jarring; Graham’s piece seems to show a barely-there person, a fading humanity. Qinnuayuak’s shows a thriving culture firmly entrenched in the land. With this juxtaposition, the exhibit draws attention to a larger theme in Graham’s work: traditional perceptions of the Arctic as barren, unpopulated, stark, and cold do a disservice to the warm and flourishing communities that live there, both then and today. The arctic is—and always has been—teeming with life.
“Artic I: Sovereignty in Pink” is on display at the AEAC until April 6 in the Samuel J. Zacks gallery. For more information, visit the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.