Swiss collectors eye Inuit artworks

“We’re promoting the unique capabilities of the Inuit”



While attending an art festival last year in Iqaluit, Martha Cerny picked up a few small ceramic art pieces made at a studio in Rankin Inlet. She liked the pieces so much she invited the studio’s owner to do a show at her gallery in Switzerland.

Jim Shirley traveled to Bern last week to join Canadian diplomats and European ceramics collectors at a gala opening night.

For four weeks, the Cerny Gallery will display 37 ceramic pieces produced at Jim and Sue Shirley’s Matchbox Gallery, along with prints and drawings by Inuit artists.

The pair opened the Matchbox Gallery 17 years ago as a display, production and training centre.

Today it is an important community resource. About 12 artists depend on the gallery as a primary source of income, while numerous others attend frequent art classes.

Rankin Inlet artists have been featured in exhibitions around the world and have participated in hand-building clay demonstrations in the U.S., Iceland and Greenland.

In 2001, the Shirleys developed the “Traditional Arts and Literacy” program, combining hands-on arts skills with academic upgrading and achievement of high school equivalency diplomas.

The story was compelling to Cerny and her husband Peter.

“They have demonstrated a kind of sensitivity to the work and the situation and the reality of producing this work and the social context of it,” Shirley says.

Yet he’s quick to point out that the show is less about promoting Inuit culture than about promoting Inuit abilities.

“What we’re promoting here are the unique capabilities that Inuit have in terms of working with ceramics,” Shirley says.

“Those capabilities include a very strong narrative ability – using clay to tell stories. Clay really lends itself to oral traditions and storytelling.”

People in Iqaluit don’t have to travel far to see what Shirley means. A collection of works from the Matchbox Gallery are on display at the Legislative Assembly.

They include faces emerging from clay bowls, and children climbing a musk ox.

Shirley hopes the show will serve as an indication of the potential of Nunavut’s human resources.

“This is the most important show in our history. For a change, we’re dealing with people who are driven by more of a vision than commercialism.”

Yvo Samgushak, Pierre Aupilardjuk, John Kurok, Lucy Sanertanut, Jack Nuviak, Roger Aksadjuak and Laurent Aksadjuak will all have work on display in the Cerny Gallery until mid-June. The show is dedicated to the memory of Laurent Aksadjuak.

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