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Arctic Museum centers Inuit folklore, mythology through art

May 3, 2024

Thetis Fourli
UNCOVERING MONSTERS Arctic Museum Curator Genevieve LeMoine displays Inuit mythology reaching from the 19th century to modern times. As history, culture and law have changed, so too have the materials used to depict these monsters, from ivory and sperm whale teeth to antlers.

On Tuesday, May 7, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (PMAM) will debut its latest exhibit, “Northern Nightmares: Monsters in Inuit Art.” This new collection features carvings and prints made by artists hailing from Alaska, Canada and Greenland and are made from ivory, antler, tusk, soapstone or paper. The exhibit features folkloric beasts that have long haunted Inuit imaginations.

PMAM Curator Genevieve LeMoine organized the exhibit over a period of a few months, taking inspiration from a specific carving of a Tupilak, a Greenlandic spirit that in myth was given life by a shaman with the purpose of destroying an enemy. LeMoine said the process of putting the exhibit together required much deliberation and intentionality.

“We do have quite a depth of monstrous pieces of art. It’s a back and forth between what our collection supports in terms of what we can display and what kind of story we’re going to tell,” LeMoine said. “At the entrance, we talked about how people encountered monsters out in the land, on the water and in the air. And then, in [the exhibit], … we talk about mythical monsters—the monsters that we can identify in our art that have specific stories associated with them.”

The Tupilak became immensely popular during World War II when American troops were stationed in Greenland and have remained a staple of Inuit art since. The collection features different representations of Tupilak that have evolved over time. The early examples are made from ivory and sperm whale teeth, but since the early 19th century, the material changed to antler.

“They’re starting more and more often to carve [modern carvings] in antler … and that’s because they can’t export ivory [by U.S. law] anymore,” LeMoine said. “And so if they want to sell them, they have to change the material they’re working in.”

Another creature LeMoine featured in the exhibit is the Palraiyuk, also known as the Tizheruk. These sea dwelling, lizard-like beasts prey on people near water. The exhibit features the first drawings of these monsters, as well as a photograph of a Palraiyuk painted onto a kayak to protect the rower.

The exhibit also features sculptures that do not represent any mythical creatures in particular. According to LeMoine, Inuit started to build these more creative sculptures after an anthropologist visited an Inuit community and held an art competition.

“We’ve got monsters that people have just invented from their own nightmares. In the 60s… the Inuit were making soapstone carvings to sell, and they were getting frustrated because they were making things that would sell rather than what they wanted to carve,” LeMoine said. “So [an anthropologist] held a competition to carve whatever [they] want and the best one would win.… In that community, now lots of people just let their imagination go wild, and they just carve.”

The prints in the exhibit are also representative of an entirely new artistic tradition because they depict monsters invented by various artists rather than those found in Inuit mythology. The display of these prints fulfills part of the exhibit’s goal of showing contemporary Inuit art alongside older pieces.

“One of the things we like to do is to educate people about Indigenous culture [and] get people more familiar with Inuit art, which is a dynamic expression among great Inuit artists,” LeMoine said. “And [Inuit] are making art in increasingly innovative and interesting ways.”

The exhibit will open next Tuesday with a reception starting at 7 p.m. at the Arctic Museum.


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