In the 20th century, after the collapse of the fur trade and resettlement due to colonialism, many indigenous communities in Canada and Alaska experienced significant changes to their way of life and had to adjust in order to survive. Both the Inuit people of Nunavut, an Inuit-governed territory in Canada and the Yup’ik people in southwestern Alaska turned to art making not only to establish strong economic standing in these new conditions, but also to instill cultural resilience.
Works including prints; drawings; carved bones, ivory, and stones; and intricately woven grass baskets were made to be sold to global markets—a dynamic that has carried into the present. Many examples of these incredible works are now housed in the permanent Museums Collections of the UD Library, Museums and Press. For the first time since 2002, these works will be the focus of a fall exhibition to be displayed in Old College Gallery.
A student curatorial collective is currently shaping this exhibition as part of a course taught by Dr. Jessica Horton, professor in the Art History Department, with Dr. Amanda Zehnder, chief curator for the Library, Museums and Press, as exhibition curator. Objects on display will include pieces from the Frederick and Lucy S. Herman and the Mabel and Harley McKeague collections of Inuit and Yup’ik art. These collections include an exceptionally strong group of original Inuit drawings and stone sculptures, as well as handwoven Yup’ik grass baskets, ivory and bone carvings, and handmade dolls. Objects on display will range in date from the early 1950s to more contemporary works. They deal with themes around traditional ways of life, changes through resettlement, relationships of reciprocity with animals and the environment, and the challenging conditions of the surrounding arctic.
Titled “The World is Following Its People”: Indigenous Art and Arctic Ecology, the theme of art and environment will run throughout the exhibition. “…Made and collected amid cultural and ecological upheavals during the second half of the 20th century, these works nonetheless convey the continuity of Indigenous ecological knowledge throughout the colonization of the Arctic,” Horton explained. “Their message resonates with added urgency today, as the land and its people stand on the frontlines of global climate change.” The indigenous communities of the arctic region are currently facing massive changes to their environment due to climate change. While we may think of ice caps melting in remote arctic locations, we are prone to forget that these changes immediately affect living, active communities.