It sounded like a variation on the old joke about selling refrigerators to Eskimos. Camille Laurin, Quebec’s minister of state for cultural development, was flying north to the Inuit village of Povungnituk early this month to open an exhibition of Inuit sculpture which had been sent from the government’s permanent collection. But in fact, the exhibition was a graceful example of government diplomacy in beginning to restore Inuit culture to the Inuit people themselves.
For years, the Inuit had been feeling a growing sense of lost contact with their artistic heritage. Amid all the pressures of Westernization, with Elvis posters and Carole King records being shipped north with the snowmobiles, every native sculpture or print had been shipped south. “An artist in the south can go to a museum any time he likes and see his work, or that of any other artist,” explained Georges Filotas, an Inuit-speaking employee of the Federation of Co-operatives. “The Inuit artists don’t even know who has bought their work.”
The exhibition at Povungnituk was a joyous affair, with the whole village of 650 turning out to greet the returning art. As children scampered cheerfully about, fathers and mothers with babies on their backs shuffled past the displays. For many, the pleasure in the sculpture was sensual: people would reach out and stroke a sculpture fondly and move on—a tendency that made one Montreal art dealer highly nervous, since he estimated one of the more fragile pieces to be worth $8,000. And part of the pleasure was family pride in the exhibition itself. One earnest southerner, curious about the criteria the Inuit used to evaluate their art, asked a native which his favorite was, and when he was told, asked why. “My cousin carved it,” the man replied with a smile.
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