Woven through time


The art and craft of Pangnirtung tapestries on display at Quebec museum

Geela Keenainak of Pangnirtung began the art of weaving in 1981, making small sashes to put on women’s parkas. In the next 21 years, she became a master at the loom, weaving images of animals and landscapes onto large wall hangings.

Starting this week, one of Keenainak’s best tapestries, “Coming up for Air,” will be hanging on a wall in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec.

Keenainak uses the image of a swimming walrus, woven in blue, brown and grey, from a print by Pangnirtung artist Joel Maniapik. “Coming up for Air” is one of 49 tapestries by Pangnirtung weavers featured in the exhibit, “Nuvisavik: The Place Where We Weave.”

The collection of Pangnirtung tapestries opens today, Feb. 22.

“I’m very happy about it,” Keenainak, 58, says, speaking through an Inuktitut interpreter. “I really liked the print from the beginning and I liked the process of weaving it.”

The exhibition, which the museum describes as containing “tapestries of immaculate craftsmanship which tell stories about Inuit culture past and present,” features wall hangings as small as one-foot by one-foot and as large as five-feet by four-feet. They depict spiritual figures, hunting scenes, animals and the Arctic landscape.

Deborah Hickman, one of the curators of the exhibit, says the 49 tapestries tell the story of 30 years of weaving in Pangnirtung.

In the Pangnirtung tradition of weaving, drawings by local artists are interpreted and then woven into tapestries. Hickman says the first tapestries, woven in 1970, depict large, simple figures on plain backgrounds. In the years following, as Inuit printmakers began to use greater detail in their art, the tapestries became more complex and sophisticated, Hickman explains.

The tapestries in the museum exhibit show the development of the art. “We selected what we thought showed a representation from the 30 years and also the development of weaving,” Hickman says in a telephone interview from the Uqqurmiut Centre in Pangnirtung, where the tapestry studio is located. Hickman has a long association with Pangnirtung, having lived there from 1980 to 1983, and she has worked as an arts advisor for the tapestry studio, travelling to the community annually, ever since.

The Nuvisavik exhibit, she says, is a show of great significance because it puts tapestry — which rarely gets as much praise as other Inuit art — into the limelight.

“The exhibit will bring recognition among the Inuit of Nunavut that the tapestry weavers and artists have done a significant body of work,” Hickman says, excitement rising in her voice.

The fact that a major Canadian museum is showing a collection of tapestries is an accomplishment in itself, Hickman says. Because tapestry is such a different medium and there’s relatively little of it around, tapestry artists have difficulty getting their work shown in art galleries.

The trouble, she says, is that people in the art world have conflicting views about whether weaving is a real art form or merely a craft. “I guess it crosses that boundary between art and craft. But what we’re doing with the tapestries in Pangnirtung is not craft,” Hickman insists. “They’re just made with a craft technique: weaving.”

The art skills required to weave tapestries will actually be part of the Nuvisavik exhibit. Over the next few days, Pangnirtung weavers will work their magic at a loom set up in the museum, demonstrating how they use wool to weave drawings. As well, 10 drawings will hang next to the tapestries to illustrate how the weavers re-created the drawings into wall hangings.

“There’s an educational aspect to the exhibition,” Hickman says. “A lot of people will learn about it and see the tapestries who had no idea they even existed.”

Three of the Uqqurmiut Centre’s weavers, Geetee Maniapik, Olassie Akulukjuk and Kataisee Kakee, are in Hull, Quebec, this week to attend the exhibit opening and demonstrate their weaving. Akulukjuk and Kakee bring with them 33 years of weaving history. The women are two of the original Pangnirtung weavers who learned the technique from Donald Stuart in 1969. Artists Elisapee Ishulutaq and Joel Maniapik, whose drawings are the basis for several tapestries, are also on hand for the opening. Since only a select few weavers could travel to Quebec, Geela Keenainak won’t be attending the exhibit this week.

The exposure from the Nuvisavik show will undoubtedly benefit the weavers, the artists and the Uqqurmiut Centre, Hickman says proudly.

“I think the recognition that will come from this exhibit will be gratifying for the whole community.”

The Nuvisavik exhibition runs at the Museum of Civilization from Feb. 22, 2002 to Sept. 8, 2003.

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