Artists, art historians, and the value of contemporary Inuit art (Nunavut)

Shannon Bagg
Dept. of Art, Queen's University
July, 2006


Economics are a defining feature of contemporary Inuit art. Nonetheless, financial considerations receive little, if any, serious attention by art historians who study the artform. On whose terms have the value and meaning of contemporary Inuit art taken shape? This thesis explores the tension between how Inuit artists define themselves as artists and their work as art, and how contemporary Inuit art and its makers are represented in the South. The purpose of this study is not only to determine how the concept of art in the North differs from that in the South, but to identify the actual process by which contemporary Inuit art 'moves' from one context to the other, gaining and losing meaning along the way. This process, although not entirely mediated by southern agents, reproduces existing power relations that obscure the actual social---and cultural---conditions of production in favour of Western notions of creativity and innovation. By juxtaposing the perspectives of prominent Cape Dorset artists with a critical examination of the treatment of contemporary Inuit art at the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization, this thesis demonstrates how the artistic and cultural values of Inuit are eclipsed by Western art philosophies and museological practices in the southern art field.