Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Inuit Intuit - Eskimo Art and Song

"I soon became melancholy. I would sometimes fall to weeping and feel unhappy without knowing why. Then for no reason all would suddenly be changed, and I felt a great, inexplicable joy, a joy so powerful that I could not restrain it, but had to break into song, a mighty song, with room for only one word: joy, joy! And I had to use the full strength of my voice. And then in the midst of such a fit of mysterious and overwhelming delight I became a shaman, not knowing myself how it came about. But I was a shaman. I could see and hear in a totally different way. I had gained my enlightenment, the shaman's light of brain and body, and this in such a manner that it was not only I who could see through the darkness of life, but the same bright light also shone out from me, imperceptible to human beings but visible to all spirits of earth and sky and sea, and these now came to me to become my helping spirits (Rasmussen, 1929, p. 119)." Ecstatic Religion: A Study of Shamanism, I. M.Lewis; Routledge, 2003 (1)

Thus the Inuit shaman, Aua, describes his transformation out on a lonely vigil in the wilderness. I came across this quote twice in the last month. The first was in a lovely book called Songs are Thoughts: Poems of the Inuit edited by Neil Philip and delightfully illustrated by Maryclare Foa (Orchard Books, New York, 1995)(2). I found it while thrifting and was ever so pleased with it when I got home. I dug out a small book on Inuit art I had (a strange little treasure found at the Lifeline Book Fair one year) and as I sat with them both I discovered that the book of Inuit art had some very interesting pictures and songs towards the back, some of which were in the book I had just found. With all these coincidences, I thought I might share some of these lovely poems and pictures with you.

Anerca is the Inuit word for both "breath" and "poetry". Songs are composed and sung as an integral part of community life. They convey deep feelings, observations about life and offer the opportunity to openly release personal grievances in a acceptable way. Knud Rusmussen, the Danish explorer, described the experience, "Words, music and dancing mingled into one great wave of feeling... The singer stands in the middle of the floor, with knees slightly bent, the upper part of the body bowed slightly forward, swaying from the hips, and rising and sinking from the knees with a rhythmic movement, keeping time throughout with his own beating of the drum. Then he begins to sing, keeping his eyes shut all the time; for a singer and a poet must always look inward in thought, concentrating on his own emotion." (2)

While the song might be a public expression, Inuit carving seems to be a more intimate art. These tiny stone or bone carvings are often kept wrapped up rather than displayed and are only shown if one where to visit your friend and ask if they had made any new cravings. Shyly brought forth, the artist would customarily be very self effacing about their work. They are, however, very beautiful; much modern sculpture could only hope to have both its minimal lines, intensity of expression and poetry of spirit. The image at the top of this post is so peculiar as it is a carving of trees based only upon descriptions of them, as the artist had never seen a tree in his life - a concept in itself we would have trouble imagining. It has a ghostly quality that seems to me to fit the visionary world of the shaman upon the ice. (Images and information from "Canadian Eskimo Art", Queen's Printer of Canada, Ottawa, Canada, 1965)(3)

Maryclare Foa's illustrations are roughly worked but spare and heartfelt. They make a wonderful accompaniment with the songs of the Inuit. She spent several months living in a tent with an Inuit family on the banks of the Northwest passage and from her interpretations must have, in that time, shared something of their spiritual world. The one above faces a poem by Aua (the same shaman as mentioned previously):

Morning Prayer

I rise up from rest,
Moving swiftly as the raven's wing
I rise up to meet the day -

My face is turning from the dark of night
My gaze towards the dawn,
Towards the whitening dawn.

I'll leave you with these thoughts by another Inuit shaman, Orpingalik and another illustration by Maryclare Foa:

"Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels fear, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his breath come in gasps and his heart throb. Something like an abatement in the weather will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves - we get a new song." (2)


Jean-Luc Picard said...

How eye-opening your post was Florence! The artwork was beautiful, as the words were.

Queen of Light and Joy said...

can you email me?
queenoflightandjoy AT gmail DOT com

lotusgreen said...

you're a different color!

beautiful poetry and paintings

Merlyn Gabriel said...

As a small child I grew up on the Labrador for two years and then after, for several years, in Northern Newfoundland. The Inuit culture seeped its way greatly into my own life. My father, who travelled a lot to the more isolated inuit communities for work, felt a deep kinship with them and as a result as kids, we were taught how to snow shoe, build igloos and have a deep respect for the land.
My mum has a curio cabinate with an entire shelf full of soap stone carvings depicting daily life of the North. Most of these pieces were gifts to my dad and to my mum who was a Nurse with the Grenfell Mission. I still carry around the inuit folk tale of why labradorite holds the colours of the Northern Lights in my head and I have labradorite stones sitting by my desk, a reminder of where I came from.

I find it sad in one respect that their way of life is changing, in some respects dying out as modernity encroaches and steals away. So many social issues up North are sad. But on the other hand there is also a sort of rebirth, a great and deep pride in the traditional culture as the modern world learns to respect the wisdom of these astonishing peoples. We have so much to learn from them, it is a shame that so few do.

The North is an amazing place. Breath taking winters and short summers. Life is not easy but I remember a childhood full of magic.Full of beauty and wonder.

Your post brought some of these memories back to me and here so very far away I could close my eyes and smell snow and salt water.

love and hugs


Friederike! said...

what a wonderful post! Thank you, Florence!

helle said...

Wonderful, Florence.
The Innuit carvings are just great. This poetry brought back a lot of memories of my time as a child in Denmark. I read a lot of children's books about their traditional way of life in Greenland.
Have you seen the traditional costumes they wear for special occassions? The women wear bead yokes and embroidered white boots. I'll see if I can find a photo for you.

Florence said...

I'm so glad you've all enjoyed this post :)

Lotusgreen,Yes! I've changed my Profile image. I've had a blue fringe and glasses for quite a while now and I thought it might be time for an update! ;)

Merly, I was thinking you'd have some stories to share. You've had so many unique experiences. I wonder what wonderful little carvings you and your mother have? and are you going to share the folktale of the labradorite?

Helle, I'd *love* to see those costumes!!

Queen, your wish is my command.


takinanap said...

beautiful work...simplicity. the sculptures remind me of henry moore's work. i wonder if he was influenced by the inuit. don't often see these images on blogs. thanks!


Florence said...

Maggie, thanks for stopping by please feel welcome here :)

They remind me of Henry Moore as well, though in inverse scale!


Rebecca-the-Wrecker said...

beautiful carvings thanks flo

helle said...

Florence.......... a photo of the exquisite costumes from Greenland:

The yoke is made from tiny beads sewn together.

Florence said...

Thanks Wrecker :)

Helle, very interesting, I liked the lace leg details too. Thanks for finding it for me.


jaihn said...

Oh I do love Inuit art too. I have a couple of Inuit Women's art books in my librarything - widget on my page - and have been 'meaning' to make a specific post for ages... now I will add a link to your post here, once I get to it....
Do you know there's a new Inuit film of Knud Rassmussen's journals -
The previous movie by that team - Atanarjuat - is wonderful.
The galleries there are lovely.
Maybe you know al this already?
Lots more I'd like to share - but I'll put them together in a post before long!
Thanks for this.

Florence said...

Hi Jaihn, so lovely of you to find me here and leave such wonderfully informative comments :)

Please feel welcome here on WindBag and Thunder.

I'll have to have a look at the links you've left for me. Also, you must let me know when you do your post on Inuit art!!


jaihn said...

Thank you, florence!

elisa said...

I just discovered your blog, this is such a great post. Thanks for that.
The sadness from the shaman, I feel so familiar to that, and the joy also. And I like your blog and work very much. And the bleu hair!
Groetjes, elisa.

The Ginger Darlings said...

I discovered your blog while searching for things about innuit songs and poems. Many thanks for being such a wonderful distraction as well as showing me the way to the book of songs and poems and paintings.

Florence said...

Elisa and jacie, you are both welcome :) Thank you for your kind words.


Clint said...

NIce artwork indeed. There's a free ebook folks can download on Inuit Eskimo art at Free Spirit Gallery.

Kapila said...

Iam a writer from Sri lanka.I have translted Gretel Ehrlichs article "The Endless Hunt" to Sinhalees News paper. serching for inuit drama and dace or theatre? can any body help me.?,and also dvds of Knud Rusmussen films or documentary. I tried some links,but not success.Thank u all.