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What’s Up at the BMA: Inuit Sculptures

/ What's Up at the BMA

The BMA collection includes over 27,000 works of art, but a mere 12% is on view at any given time. We are constantly rotating and refreshing our galleries, so that every time you visit the Museum you’ll see something different. This series highlights a new work for you to experience and shows you “what’s up” at the Museum right now.

We recently installed a collection of sculptures from a private collector in the Native American galleries. All of these works were made by Inuit artists living and working in the Arctic region of Canada. Some of the sculptures depict animals, including bears, walrus, and birds. The Inuit have shared their frozen environment with animals for thousands of years. At one time they relied exclusively on animals for their every need. Although they have many supply sources today, the Inuit continue to hunt land and sea animals as a source of their food, garments, tools, and weapons. Animals also symbolize a connection to the spiritual world.

Some of the animals are dancing, and one is titled Dancing Bird Spirit. The spiritual leader of the community, called a shaman, has the ability to transform between human and animal forms, as well as communicate and travel between the human realm and the invisible world of spirits. The sculpture called Emerging Shaman depicts the moment of transformation from one state of being to another, and the sculpture Drummer and Sedna shows a drumming shaman communicating with Sedna, a female deity who governs the ocean depths.

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War brought new attention to the Canadian Arctic in the 1950s. New government and military personnel arrived in the area, as well as services such as schools and clinics. Inuit ways of life underwent dramatic changes in this period; among them was an artistic shift in which Inuit men and women learned to work with new materials and in a new scale. They established an artist cooperative and shifted from making small carvings of bone, antler, and walrus tusk to making large-scale sculpture from stone and prints. The sale of this art added important cash resources to households in a changing economy. Inuit artists today are flourishing, and their work includes a blend of traditional and modern subject matter, reflecting the complex reality of their lives.