UMMA's "Reflections: An Ordinary Day" explores quotidian moments in Inuit life


Pauojoungie Saggiak, Spirit in the Limelight, 2016

Pauojoungie Saggiak, Spirit in the Limelight, 2016

What one person might consider an ordinary, everyday scene, another might see as unusual and unique. It all depends on where you live, since cultures evolve in different ways that fit their environments. So, a person from the Caribbean might not recognize something from the Arctic as commonplace and vice versa. 

Reflections: An Ordinary Day, an exhibit University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) that features Inuit art, is filled with imagery of everyday tasks and mythologies of people who live in the Far North. But for people who live in the Midwest, these representations are anything but banal or commonplace.

This is the UMMA’s second exhibit of Inuit art and it gives viewers a chance to see even more works gifted by the Power family to the museum. In the newly named Eleanor Noyes Crumpacker Gallery, prints, drawings, and sculptures spanning from the mid-1950s to the 2010s are now on view through May 10, 2020.

The first exhibit, The Power Family Program for Inuit Art: Tillirnanngittuqfocused on the history of the Power family’s collecting and promoting art in the Cape Dorset area. While many of the pieces on display in Reflections: An Ordinary Day are direct promised gifts from the Power Family, others are purchases made possible by the Power Family Program, or gifts by donors such as Katherine Kurtz and Raburn Howland.

Works in the gallery span from the mid-20th century to the early 21st-century and feature Inuit artistic methods of inscription, printmaking, carving, and drawing. UMMA curator Vera Grant notes that the images selected for the exhibition are united in their depictions of “seemingly ordinary” everyday imagery.

Some images portray daily tasks infused with fantasy, such as in Nikotai Mills’ stone-cut and stencil print Following the Route, 1996, which depicts owls rowing a vessel. Here, an ordinary travel route becomes extraordinary as animals sit in for humans and enact their routine activities. Similarly, in Ningeokuluk Teevee’s lithograph Shaman Revealed, 2007, an ordinary person unzips their human costume to reveal that they are a wolf, and a shaman as the work’s title reveals. 

Nicotye Samayualie, Salt & Pepper, 2015

Nicotye Samayualie, Salt & Pepper, 2015

On the wall beneath this colorful and masterful print, another vibrant stone-cut print represents a serene and “ordinary” landscape by Nicotye Samayualie titled Cotton Grass, 2013. In Salt & Pepper, 2015, another work by Nicotye Samayualie, etching and chine-collé are employed in the creation of the resulting semi-abstract image. Cotton Grass, from a distance, appears as a stark black shape against a white backdrop. Given a closer look, the print is comprised of three forms: a salt shaker, a pepper shaker, and a resulting human form below, created from the pouring of the two shakers. Though incomplete, the human form is suggested in the image and it's presumably still being created through the combining of salt and pepper.

In Field and Verse, a 2004 lithograph by Animik Ragee, the ordinary is completely abstracted, the square field of representation being comprised of texture and shape. Displayed next to Field and Verse is Pauojoungie Saggiak’s stone-cut and stencil print Spirit in the Limelight, 2016, which depicts a colorfully rendered green-and-blue-scaled aquatic spirit. The spirit resembles classic depictions of mer-people and is executed with an eye for detail and repetition, two signatures of Saggiak’s artistic approach.

In the earlier UMMA exhibition The Power Family Program for Inuit Art: Tillirnanngittuq, works by renowned artist Kenojuak Ashevak featured prominently in the space. More of Ashevak’s prints are on display in Reflections: An Ordinary Day, including the 2012 stone-cut Red Fox, a print of a bright red fox on a white plane. The stark lines and bold colors of this print contrast to some of Ashevak’s earlier prints, which are formally similar but employ a painterly application of ink. Because this exhibit features works that were created in the 21st century, the evolution of Ashevak’s style from earlier works to the end of her life is evident.

Works in the exhibit range from representations of the quotidian to abstract contemplations and imagery infused with traditional Inuit myth and elements of fantasy. UMMA curator Vera Grant suggests these images present “daydreaming meditations” that bridge “the mundane and the fantastic.” As a whole, the images in the exhibit “present a distinct imagery and a visual poetry culled from the day-to-day reality of life in the far polar north.” Finally, the works are “contemplations” that “reveal intimate connections among the artists, their communities, and their locale -- a specific place and time composed of icy regions and vast seas and tundras.”

While viewers native to the Midwest might not look at these images and think “these are ordinary and mundane images,” as they illustrate landscapes and traditions that may not be familiar to them, these works utilize iconography that is commonplace for the Inuit groups that created them. These expert works depict the unique and interconnected lives of the Inuit artists who create them, with an emphasis on works created in the past 70 years.

UMMA’s exhibits show only a small portion of the prolific movement of Inuit sculptors and printmakers, and the growing collection of Inuit art at UMMA initiated by the Power Family Program for Inuit art will likely bring more related exhibits in the future. 

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

"Reflections: An Ordinary Day" is at University of Michigan Museum of Art through May 20.