The art of indigenous peoples in the arctic is often poorly understood by those who live in warmer climates. There’s the mistaken notion that the arctic is a barren region without art, but that misconception is slowly changing. Donald Ellis Gallery is doing its part by mounting an exhibition titled Two Thousand Years of Inuit Art at this fall’s Frieze Masters art fair in London — the city’s biggest commercial art event.
“This exhibition will include the most important group of Yup’ik masks ever offered for sale, several having formerly been in the collections of Surrealist artists André Breton, Roberto Matta, and Robert Lebel,” Donald Ellis told Hyperallergic. “Two absolute highlights will be the extraordinary Donati Studio [Yup’ik] mask [from the village of Napaskiak, Alaska], widely considered the most important mask in private hands and the exceptionally rare monumental [Pre-Koniag Culture] Kodiak Madonna [from Kodiak Island, Alaska], a masterpiece dating to 500 BC. These works will be shown together with works from recognized 20th-century masters John Pangnark, Andy Miki, and Parr, showing the continuing artistic traditions of this remarkable culture.”
The presence of art from the arctic region in the collection of Surrealists shouldn’t be a surprise to most familiar with the 20th-century modernist art movement. In the group’s infamous map of the world, published in 1929, Alaska and the arctic are overrepresented as they dwarf the continents of Africa, South America, and other much larger territories.
The survival of art by indigenous groups in the arctic demonstrates that regardless of European colonization, the Inuit and other nations continued to reflect their world in the objects with which they surrounded themselves, often depicting everything from human figures, hunting events, to animal forms. The elegance of the objects themselves point to the sophistication of the arctic peoples and their ability to fully adapt to the area’s harsh climate.