Special exhibition visits with Inupiat, Sakha and Inuit advisors at the British Museum. This knowledge and these perspectives provide invaluable content and structure to the exhibition. Other types of collaboration take on a material form. We have commissioned a very special art installation by the socially engaged art collective Embassy of Imagination. Composed of Inuit young people from Kinngait, Nunavut Canada and two Toronto-based artists, Alexa Hatanaka and Patrick Thompson, the collective has organised workshops in Kinngait and Pangnirtung, Nunavut, focusing on local survival skills such as travelling on the land and ice and sewing as well as creative practices like printmaking. Their artwork, Parkas, Silapaas (working title) is made from washi, a type of Japanese paper that has been sewn into silapaas, thin outer Inuit parkas. Each silapaa’s design is carved from found objects and materials and then relief printed onto the washi.
European perspectives often place the Arctic on the periphery of the world. But for Arctic Peoples who have traded and exchanged ideas, materials, and livelihoods with one another for millennia, it is the centre of the world. Today, four million people live in the Arctic and 400,000 are Indigenous with ancestral ties to the region. These ties predate and transcend the establishment of the eight Arctic nations: Russia, USA, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. There are 40 different cultural groups with distinct languages and dialects, many of them represented in the exhibition.
The Arctic is often imagined as barren and empty. Although there are lean seasons corresponding to the dark winter months, these alternate with periods of extraordinary abundance. Summer’s continuous daylight generates a phenomenal growth in sea algae, attracting migratory whales and walrus. When the snows melt, plants spring to life, producing berries and greens that support reindeer and migratory birds. Arctic Peoples have thrived by effectively harnessing the great concentrations of plants and animals in summer to carry them through winter. Arctic cultures are bound to the climate with community activities, ceremonies and celebrations structured around the seasons, as depicted in a painted lithograph, Nunavut Qajanartuk (Our beautiful land), by Kenojuak Ashevak (1927–2013).
One of the most amazing things about the Arctic is that its Indigenous inhabitants have made warm homes and a hospitable homeland out of icy ecosystems. Ice is both materially and metaphorically foundational to life here. It serves as building material for roads and temporary shelters, and it enables people to travel widely, providing access to bountiful worlds. An engraved walrus tusk by Inupiat artist Angokwazhuk (‘Happy Jack’) (1875–1918) depicts innovative transport well adapted to icy seas. When sea ice moves in, Inupiat and Inuit place their lightweight boats on small sleds to reach open water where sea mammals and migrating birds gather.
Based on living with, observing, and telling stories about the weather
Man’s woollen, cloth and otter fur winter hat (čiehkagahpir), Sámi, Karasjok (Norway), 1945– 55. Bequeathed by Harry Ely.
Bone spoon, Ust-Polui, Salekhard (Russia) c.1st century BC–1st century AD. MAE RAS (Kunstkamera), St Petersburg.
30 British Museum Magazine Spring/Summer 2020