The ‘Arctic: culture and climate’ exhibition in six objects

Published 26 February 2021

Jan Peter Laurens Loovers, curator of the British Museum exhibition – now online – that explores the cultural histories, past and present, of the region's Indigenous Peoples, reveals the stories behind six key objects from the show.

Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013), Nunavut Qajanartuk (Our Beautiful Land), lithograph and watercolour, 1992, Reproduced with the permission of West Baffin

Nunavut Qajanartuk (Our Beautiful Land) (1992) by Kenojuak Ashevak

Perhaps one of the most renowned Inuit artists, Kenojuak Ashevak was born in Ikerasak, near Kinngait (Cape Dorset), on Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) in 1927. Her father was an accomplished spiritual expert or angakkuq. In her early adulthood she was struck by the tuberculosis epidemic that decimated communities across the Arctic, and for several years she was hospitalised in Quebec.

While Ashevak’s drawings of owls are one of the subjects for which she is particularly well known, this lithograph might be considered the epitome of her life growing up on the land and experiencing the creation of Nunavut. She eloquently captures the seasonal lives of her people and the animals, as well as the importance of transportation, vernacular architecture and clothing. The lithograph was commissioned by the Canadian Government to commemorate the signing of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement-in-Principle in 1990. Its importance is signified by its use as the cover of the eventual Nunavut Land Claim Agreement, dated 1 April 1999.

Caribou antler wand carved with 27 human faces in relief, each with a different expression. Iqaluit, Nunavut, 800-1300, Courtesy Cambridge Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology

Caribou antler wand, Iqaluit, Nunavut, 800-1300

There is something mystical yet common about this wand carved out of caribou antler. Its unknown Dorset artist would have lived around Foxe Basin in present Nunavut.

There are faces with a stoic expression, others appear to be smiling, whilst others have open mouths. Some anthropologists and archaeologists have argued that the faces with open mouths might imply breathing, and its importance in containing the force of life. While this remains speculation, the wand exemplifies the exquisite miniature art that evolved during this era.

Miniature pendants and amulets made of animal parts such as caribou hooves, caribou jawbones, and walrus heads illustrate the importance of certain animals as well as of the Dorset artistry. The depiction of miniature human figurines and faces developed from earlier animal figures.

Composite scraper, Kuskokwim, Yupiit, pre-1949

Alongside needles, scrapers have been pivotal for living in the Arctic and creating intricate clothing. By removing tough epidermis layers or fur from hides with scrapers, women were able to make variations in colour, weight and flexibility.

Traditionally, scrapers were made from materials such as ivory, bone or antler, stone or jadeite. With the arrival of European trade, metal became more ubiquitous and replaced stone blades.

This Yupiit scraper from Northwest Alaska has a distinct pattern of lines and dotted circles. The circle-dot motif has a long history, described as ‘an eye and a hole’ that resembles the joints in animals, and also symbolising the movement between different spiritual worlds and social transformation. This scraper also followed Yupiit tattooing tradition where the dotted circles were made on the wrists of young women at puberty.

Composite scraper, jade blade with engraved ivory handle, Kuskokwim, Yupiit, pre-1949 © Trustees of the British Museum

Woman’s hat or ládjogahpir’, wool, horn, cotton and silk. Norway, Sámi, pre-1919 © Trustees of the British Museum

Woman’s hat or ládjogahpir’, Norway, Sámi, pre-1919

Sámi, Europe’s only Indigenous Peoples, have been at the frontline of experiencing and challenging colonial initiatives.

Like other Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic, Sámi were subjected to settler regimes based on Christian values and traditions. This foremother’s horn hat, or ládjogahpir’ in northern Sámi language, stopped being worn in the mid-1800s.

There is still a debate about what led to the disappearance of the ládjogahpir’, but some Lutheran missionaries had become vocal opponents of women wearing what they called the 'Devil’s Horn hat'. For Sámi, however, ládjogahpir’ is a clear marker of identity, with the colour patterns and style being specific to a particular region.

Ládjogahpir’ were made from cloth and textile, and shaped either by carved wood or a piece of cow horn, such as can be seen in this example.

Human face mask, made of wood, pre-1921, Inupiat © Trustees of the British Museum

Human face mask, Inupiat, pre-1921

Inuit across the Arctic carved masks that were used for healing or communal celebrations to ensure prospective hunting luck. Whilst the Yupiit are famed for their decorative masks, the Inupiat made less elaborate but equally important masks.

This Inupiat mask was carved from driftwood and painted with red ochre. Inserted with teeth and having holes for hair, the mask has a striking human resemblance. In the late 19th century, Inuit mask dances became considered a ‘heathen practice’ and banned by Christian missionaries. The spiritual healer, or angakkuq in Inuktitut, was unable to perform communal celebrations in public and many gave up their masks. More recently, and aligned with broader Indigenous land right movements, communal ceremonies and dancing have gained public importance again. The Kivgig·ñiq (Messenger Feast) and Nalukataq, for example, have become important celebrations that revitalise Inupiat culture, marking the seasonal hunting of sealing and whaling.

Nikolai Leontyevich Shakhov, Obdorsk Fortress, 1830, fabric drawing, Nenets/Khanty, Courtesy Kunstkamera, Russia © MAE RAS

Obdorsk Fortress (1830) by Nikolai Leontyevich Shakhov, Nenets/Khanty

In the background of this textile drawing is the imposing Obdorsk Fortress (nowadays Salekhard) strategically located on the Ob River in northern Khanty lands. The Khanty, Indigenous Peoples whose territory stretches along the river, would have already traded here with their Nenets neighbours before Cossacks built the fort in 1595. The family of artist Nikolai Leontyevich Shakhov (1770-1840) had a long history and most likely participated in establishing Obdorsk Fortress.

As Imperial Officer, Shakhov was responsible for the collection of yasak, a fur tax or tribute subjugates had to pay to the Imperial Court. Nenets and Khanty were thus obliged to hunt and trap a certain number of animals each year as a contribution to the Imperial state. This drawing, however, provides a more romantic picture of Khanty and/or Nenets, giving prominence to reindeer and dogs. Made on cotton cloth, and painted with watercolours, it depicts wintry transportation, clothing, lassoing reindeer, cooking and eating, and what appears to be preparing traps.

Ultimately, Shakhov showed that the people continued their traditional lives and remained undeterred from the subtle but omnipresent fortress with its Orthodox cathedral in the background.

A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2020 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

‘Arctic: culture and climate' was on show at the British Museum, London, from 22 October 2020 to 21 February 2021. A tour of the exhibition is available to view online.

Back to top