Concepts of Space and Time in Inuit ArtSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In a symposium on Representation and Images, the Institute for the Humanities spent a full day in early November looking at the ways individuals and cultures conceive and process. With talks drawn from the fields of art, geometry, brain imaging, and music, faculty theorized the ways we imagine, create and process images. Discussions included examination of the imaging of a three-dimensional geometric figure (Philip Hanlon, Mathematics), how the brain translates visual images (Stephen Easter, Biology), and how physical presence affects the experience of music (Andrew Mead, Music).
In the final talk of the day, "Where 'Sleeps' Are a Measure of Miles — Concepts of Space and Time in Inuit Art," Marion Jackson, chair of Art History at Wayne State University, examined the physical and artistic terrain of the Inuit. Placing before viewers an image created by Inuit artist Irene Avaalaaqiaq, Jackson directed attention to the relationship between the mind and external reality, and between patterns of thinking and drawn images.
"How do culture and experience show up in art?" Jackson asked, showing a series of drawings and maps as expressions of the Inuit's feel for the land and their place in it. Indeed, said Jackson, the first images from the Inuit that Europeans encountered were maps from the mid-nineteenth century, drawn by people who knew the landscape, who were skilled at maneuvering it and who knew landmarks readily identified even in the fiercest Arctic blizzard. European hunters hired Inuit hunters to draw maps of the coast and hunting grounds. It is the activity of mapping which highlights a crucial conceptual difference between the Inuit and European cultures. Jackson explained that the Inuit conceived of, and thus measured, distance not in miles, but in "sleeps." In other words, one would measure distance by calculating how many stops for rest were necessary to get from one destination to another. Everyone understood that the measure could be affected by weather, topography, luck, skill and the number or age of the travelers. A journey with children might require more "sleeps" than one that included only adults.
Inuit skill at mental mapping was well developed, in part because survival depended on finding certain places: the best hunting grounds, the best fishing waters. The Inuit tended to "draw" their maps in the snow, ice, or even in the air, and gave place names to describe the landmark — "the place where the river widens" or "the place of many walruses." The ephemeral nature of this mapping process signals the ways in which the Inuit mapped extensively — and preserved those maps — in their minds. Jackson showed 19th-century maps drawn by the French who came to hunt in Inuit lands surrounding the Hudson Bay. By comparison, early Inuit maps seem to be drawn with simpler lines, perhaps recalling their maps drawn in the air, with exaggerated features that relate to the importance of a particular place to the mapmaker. Exaggeration was used to signify a good hunting ground, for instance, or a particularly crucial refuge from bad weather. The first Inuit drawings bear a striking resemblance to maps; Jackson suggested that this similarity was most likely due to the fact that the first Inuit drawings on paper were indeed those 19th-century maps. Jackson showed an example of an early Inuit landscape that echoes the lines of a map, which she displayed next to the drawing.
Other styles emerged, with the simplicity of line and form now associated with Inuit art. A group of caribou are rendered as single, silhouetted figures, spaced across the surface with a uniform stenciled pattern behind it. Jackson presented other drawings that eventually shed the patterned background, with the object against a white, blank field, evoking the stark and often undifferentiated Arctic environment. At the same time, the Inuit made use of plentiful soapstone and began to create sculptures, often of animals, rendered in the same simple form. The government supported this art and soon began to encourage sales to the "south," introducing people from the United States to the beauty of Inuit art. The contact between northern and southern artists began to appear in Inuit art. In the 1970s Inuit landscapes began to show the influence of "western" art, with drawings that were increasingly elaborate and contextualized. The work begins to pose new questions as Inuit ponder the dramatic change from an early nomadic life to one of a settled people. Jackson asked "What kinds of images emerge from people who love the land, but no longer really live on the land?" She observed that the Inuit are puzzled and disconcerted by the concept of "owning" land: "The land is like the air — it was for everyone, and the idea of parceling out land is an unfamiliar concept to people who have no history of owning land."
Jackson concluded with a series of images reinforcing the Inuit's intimate connection to the land. These images express the powers of nature and the increasing vulnerability of people closely connected with sources of nature. Returning to the talk's opening focus on mapping and the concept of "sleeps" to measure time and distance, Jackson suggested further reflection about the transition from the traditional to the "new" ways. "Which is real, and which is imaginary?" she asked. She left us to consider the image of a people whose expressive concept of "sleeps" has undergone such dramatic challenge in just two generations.
Betsy Nisbet is the events and publicity coordinator for the Institute for the Humanities.