Museum of Inuit Art Showcases Inuit Ceramics in Toronto

TORONTO – Toronto’s Museum of Inuit Art’s (MIA) latest exhibition, The Matchbox Gallery: A Retrospective, looks at the gallery’s history and production of fine ceramic art in Kangirqliniq or Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. 

Well-known for ceramics production, the Matchbox is the only place that produces fine arts ceramics in Canada’s Arctic.

Less well-known are the gallery’s other artistic productions.

Alysa Procida, MIA’s curator and executive director, has worked on the exhibition since 2011 when she went to Rankin to conduct research at the Matchbox.

Once there, she was struck by the collaborative way the Inuit artists worked. She was used to seeing artists work in isolation. This was different.

In the mornings, she saw the artists gather for math and reading exercises then do drawing exercises for spatial and visual literacy.

In the afternoon, many of them worked on ceramics while some did printmaking or continued to draw.

When she first walked into the studio, she was surrounded by drawings. This made her aware of the connection between drawing and its sense of space, form and composition and how that translated into three-dimensional works for ceramic artists.

She recognized that when ceramics are shown alone, it tells only half the story of what the Inuit artists do. At MIA, drawings, paintings, and prints hang on the wall to approximate what is found at the Matchbox Gallery.

Jim and Sue Shirley, Matchbox Gallery founding coordinators, develop literacy skills as a critical component of the program in Rankin. They see the interconnectedness between literacy skills of all kinds.

“Jim has a really interesting concept of the literacy of touch. To him, Inuit have survived by being able to manipulate tools and materials into whatever needs to be done. This is very different than how most people think of Inuit art,” said Procida. “I’ve heard a lot of people say what Inuit ‘do’ is they look at a piece of stone, they see the inner form, and they liberate it by stripping the stone away.

“Ceramic work is the exact opposite. You start with nothing and you build it up. It’s a different way of experiencing art production. I think that was really appealing to him and these artists. It explores different ways of working and different ways of interpreting materials,” she said.

Procida pointed out the interconnectedness in the graphic work of Jessie Kenalogak who lives in Qamani’tuaq or Baker Lake and sometimes works at the Matchbox Gallery.

Kenalogak’s drawings, We Born To Work On It, and Rainbow Animals Celebrate, hang above an experimental ceramic piece at the Toronto museum.

Ceramic With Drawings, created by Kenalogak in collaboration with John Kurok demonstrates the relationship between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional works on display.

Kenalogak’s sense of style, composition, form, and colour come through in both the drawings and the ceramic piece.

Artists Jack Nuviyak, Roger Aksadjuak, John Kurok, and Leo Napayok created one of MIA’s most notable presentations, Enchanted Polar Bear.

The piece shows the artists’ collaboration, skill, and a unique ceramic production. After a bisque firing, the Bear was sawdust fired where smoke created its dark mottled tones.

“It is the epitome of what people should think of when they think of Inuit ceramics. Not only did all four artists collaborate on the piece; it’s shocking in its detail, its form, and its composition,” said Procida. “I’ve never seen anything like this.

“I think many people have a limited idea of what they think of when they think of Inuit art. It’s often soapstone sculpture with lots of dancing bears and lots of inuksuit (plural of inukshuk in Inuktitut). Those are all lovely and fabulous but there’s so much more.”

Soapstone sculpture is popular today. Inuit were encouraged to use soapstone by the government. Traditionally, they used ivory. To dig up soapstone or serpentine or steatite (geological names for soapstone) or any local stone takes a lot of effort. The quarries are often far away and the work is dangerous.

Matchbox Gallery artists reflect on their life experiences as all artists do.

For Pierre Aupilardjuk, ceramics is a way to look back. Giving Thanks by Aupilardjuk and Leo Napayok is a real standout.

At MIA’s opening on April 10, Procida described how Aupilaardjuk explained the figures in the two hands from stories told to him by his uncles.

One uncle told him that in days gone by, when a man was sick, he would go to a shaman. The shaman spit in his palm which turned into a little man. If the little man walked off the shaman’s hand, the man was going to die.

Another uncle told him that if the little man walked up the shaman’s arm, it meant that the man would live.

In Giving Thanks, two men walk up the shaman’s arms illustrating how the man wants to live.

For Procida, Giving Thanks shows Inuit cultural resiliency. She remembered how according to Aupilardjuk’s story, the man with outstretched arms represents modern Inuit who can’t practice shamanism today as it was forcefully stamped out in most places.

Aupilardjuk appeared at MIA’s opening along with Jim Shirley, Matchbox Gallery director.

Some of Shirley’s work is on display. Years ago, the Bronx native made his way up north as a crafts officer in the Northwest Territories. On a tour through Rankin, Shirley saw the remnants of a government-run ceramics studio.

Shirley and his wife, Sue, both non-Inuit artists, created an opportunity to revive the ceramic art when they opened the Matchbox Gallery in 1987.

In the beginning, the Shirleys worked with Yvo Samgushak and Laurent Aksadjuak, experienced Inuit instructors who had worked in the government-run ceramics studio that opened in the 1950s.

The government started the arts and crafts workshop as an experimental program for unemployed Inuit people. They had flocked to Rankin to work in the New Rankin Nickel Mine. When the mine closed in the ‘50s, many Inuit were left without jobs.

The workshop closed in the late 1970s but the fine art of ceramics lives on in the Matchbox Gallery.

The Matchbox Gallery: A Retrospective is up at the Museum of Inuit Art until August 10, 2014. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. Museum of Inuit Art, 207 Queen’s Quay West, 1st Floor, Toronto, Ont. M5J 1A7, 416-640-1571.

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