“Artists draw what they think… and what they have seen also. But sometimes they draw from their imaginations something that doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.” ~ Pudlo Pudlat
I want to share my classroom’s exploration of Inuit art (an idea prompted by a splendid exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada of Inuit textiles). These are drawings created by four and five-year-olds, inspired by images they saw of the artwork of Kenojuak Ashevak, Pudlo Pudlat, Ningeokuluk Teevee and Kingmeata Etidlooie. This exploration was an extension of our inquiry about Arctic animals which evolved into an important opportunity to help children learn something about Inuit peoples through an accessible avenue: art. Inuit art is extraordinary and distinctive, and has much to teach people about culture and life in the Arctic. The children in my class approached this experience with great enthusiasm and seriousness. They attended to exquisite details in the images and added their own unique touches as well. One child spent over 30 minutes on his drawing of Kenojuak’s raven! This was a wonderful art project, but still I want to consider the question of whether this activity was appropriate or cultural appropriation. I have wrestled with this question before when I introduced children to the circular paintings of Alex Janvier after a visit to the McMichael Gallery. As an aspiring watercolourist I was excited by his work, and wanted to explore this unusual technique with my class. I told the children the source of the idea, showed them images of Janvier’s work along with a video about the artist. This is precisely what I would have done had we been learning about the work of artists like Klee, Picasso, O’Keeffe, Kusama or Monet (which we have done).
“If an artist draws a subject over and over again in different ways, then he will learn something…” ~ Pudlo Pudlat
As an educator my goal is to provide classroom provocations that spring from genuine
interests – mine and those of the children. Through the above art projects, I introduced the artists’ works as a means of bringing Indigenous content into the curriculum in ways that I believe were authentic, respectful and meaningful. I realize that ideally an Indigenous artist would bring this teaching into my classroom; I can’t imagine a better learning opportunity for children, but this is beyond my means. I want to do what is right, but I feel faced with difficult options. I could choose not to bring this kind of Indigenous content into the curriculum, out of fear of causing unintended offence to anyone, or the fear of doing something in a way that is wrong. But I think that something is wrong if students’ artworks inspired by Indigenous artists is glaringly absent from the walls of schools when so many other artists are used for inspiration. But simply excluding this kind of experience is also problematic. It suggests that we don’t value learning from or about Indigenous art as much as we value the work of any other great artist (when we should, and we do). The second is to choose to bring such Indigenous content into the curriculum, do everything possible to be respectful, and risk learning and growing from mistakes that might get made and allow those mistakes to invite discussion about how to build bridges and do things better as educators. All children need to see diversity reflected in their learning environments. All children in schools need to see themselves represented and they need the chance to be seen and heard. All children need to learn about those with whom they share their world. I believe that art experiences can be one of the most beautiful and inviting doors to deeper learning and mutual understanding.
“There is no word for art. We say it to transfer something from the real to the unreal. I am an owl, and I am a happy owl. I am the light of happiness and I am a dancing owl.” ~ Kenojuak Ashevak
Now I wish to share what was learned in my classroom through this exploration of Inuit art, by the children and by me. Though at the outset we were learning about Arctic animals, this experience became so much richer when we began to learn about the Inuit, their culture and language, and how they respect, rely upon and share the land with many different animals. We read several picture books (mentioned in an earlier blog post) to help us understand how the Inuit lived and survived in the Arctic a long time ago – how they adapted to living in one of the harshest climates on earth – and how they live now. Today, modern life is balanced with preserving important traditional practices. Inuit art is a way of preserving history, but it also reveals a lot about peoples’ lives, and it represents myths and legends; it frequently features animals such as birds, fish, walruses, polar bears, seals, caribous, musk oxen and mythical creatures that are part animal and part human. These myths and legends invite us to try to understand the spiritual connection between the Inuit and the living beings in their world; these stories have long been a source of inspiration for art. For our project we looked at many images of animals. Using paper and markers, each child drew their own unique interpretation of the image they chose. It was amazing to witness the level of concentration, the attention to detail and the amount of care that was put into many of the drawings. These were beautifully framed and the children did work they can truly be proud of. Moreover, they began to learn about and appreciate Indigenous art and to respect the lives and the important artistic contribution of the Inuit.