Note: While this is a review of the book “Arctic Dreams and Nightmares,” a collection of art and accompanying short stories by the late Inuk artist, Alootook Ipellie, we are also taking a look at Ipellie’s larger body of work, and the significance of his contribution to Inuit art and political comics in general.
The title “Arctic Dreams and Nightmares” is a woeful summation of this haunting journey through the imagination of a man who seems to have been, as the title suggests, a dreamer. But within modern memory, it is an easy thing to understand how any Inuk’s dreams might turn to nightmares.
Writing as a qallunaat from the privileged perspective of the south, it is outside my role to interpret these dreams for the world. But as a sometime-student of Canadian colonialism and its violence against the indigenous people of the Arctic, I can help to shed some midnight sun on the darkness of this genocidal history.
Rachel Attituq Qitsualik wrote in Nunatsiaq that “The Inuit cosmos is ruled by no one. There are no divine mother and father figures. There are no wind gods and solar creators. There are no eternal punishments in the hereafter, as there are no punishments for children or adults in the here and now.” This Inuk hunter on the cross, pierced by the arrows and harpoons of his people, is a curious expression of the impact of Christianity on indigenous spirituality. For several hundred years, missionaries were among the only European people in the north. The legacy of the Christian churches in the Arctic is inextricable from the legacy of the residential schools system, which saw many Inuit taken from their communities. The choice of wolves, harpoons and arrows to pierce the Inuk Jesus is difficult to interpret; is it intended to convey that the Inuit have done harm to themselves by adopting Christianity?
The Inuit have not so much adopted Christianity as adapted it, as they have done with so many things from the south. In the 1950s, when the government imposed a program to settle the Inuit into stationary townships, social workers would complain of bathtubs being used to butcher seals or dining room tables turned into workbenches. But as their success in the extreme conditions of the Arctic shows, Inuit culture is nothing if not adaptive. So there is perhaps an echo of this in the image of a 3-piece Inuit blues group like the one above. It is likely not a coincidence that blues, a music with its roots in articulating experiences of oppression and resistance, is the music played by the band.
There is something viscerally disturbing about a woman being drawn along like a sled by a team of babies, still tethered to her womb by umbilical cords. Casual familiarity with the Inuit is enough to understand the historic importance of dog sleds to their lives, and some may know that snowmobiles have overwhelmingly replaced dog sleds as the main mode of tundra transit. But what goes woefully unacknowledged is the vicious extermination of hundreds of sled dogs by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who traveled the Arctic in the 1950s and 1960s, murdering whole teams of sled dogs. This systematic slaughter left a collective trauma shared by many Inuit, a violent break with traditional lifeways enforced by agents of colonial administration. It is difficult to discern the meaning of the children in place of the dogs – is it meant to convey that the Inuit continue regardless?
The broader ethics of animal rights aside, there is a particularly sinister clash between traditional indigenous practices and glamorous celebrities who care more for seals than human life. The famed French film starlet Brigitte Bardot has had a long career as an animal rights activist, and at one point took the Inuit to task for their continuation of the seal hunt. Here she is re-imagined as an Inuk’s wife, stalked by the very creature she once sought to protect. Unchecked by the seal hunt, the creatures now turn on their former predators, seeking to club them in turn. If starvation would not be the literal outcome of ending the seal hunt, the scene is suggestive of the damage to Inuit culture if this long practice would be discontinued.
What is more, the damage may not only be cultural. In addition to it being a major component of Inuit culture, what is called ‘country food’ is in fact healthy to the Inuit diet, which has adapted to this nutritional intake from centuries of continuous habitation in the region. Adverse health trends in the north have been linked to the adoption of southern diets, encouraged by well-intentioned southern doctors.
Regardless of the historical context in which these works are placed, there is a critical meta-narrative at play. Primitivism, an artistic movement that appropriates indigenous aesthetics for European audiences, has become an acceptable form of art – a kind of cultural erasure. Traditional indigenous art is permissible in the iconography of official Canadian cultures, because it is “historic”. Indigenous peoples are permitted in the canon because they are presumed to have assimilated, (AKA disappeared). Inukshuks, totem poles, soapstone carvings and bead-work are all relatively traditional indigenous crafts, co-opted by the Canadian state to suggest a continuity between historic indigenous peoples and modern Canadian settlers–use of indigenous culture by the colonial apparatus suggests a cooperation, or at least a submission by the former to the latter. Symbols of pre-contact Inuit spirituality are acceptable as well – traditional tales and legendary creatures that preserve the image of the Inuk as an unchanging “primitive” without the complex legacy of Christianity. This is effectively a denial of the violent rupture that occurred.
Ipellie’s style seems to stand outside of this. His art is by turns haunting, erotic and grotesque, but always political. By deviating from southern expectations that Inuit art produces a pre-contact fantasy of seal hunting, igloos and polar bears, his art challenges white expectations of indigenous art. By smearing sex, violence and modernity across southern stereotypes of Inuit culture, Ipellie defaces the museum-exhibit sterility of the “noble savage” trope with the viscera of human vulgarity.
The Inuit are not simply figures in the past, a culture to borrow as part of some settler narrative. They are figures in our present, affected by us, and, as is best represented by Ipellie and his work, affecting us in turn.