Canada’s Arctic has been inhabited by humans for at least 4,000 years. The first people known to have produced figurative art there belonged to the Dorset culture (c. 600 BC to 1,000 AD). One of their descendants is the Inuit artist Quaraq Nungusuituq, who carved the bear pictured here.
Cape Dorset is an Inuit hamlet located on Dorset Island at the southern tip of Baffin Island in the Qikiqtaaluk Region of Nunavut, Canada. The Inuktitut name of the village means “high mountains”.
Cape Dorset is where vestiges of the Thule culture were discovered, a people who migrated from northern Alaska and who made carvings from bone, ivory, and wood. Originally embellishments of objects such as combs, needle cases, harpoon toggles and gaming pieces, today’s artistic community earns a living from drawing, printmaking, and stone carving.
The Cape Dorset style is based on a love of naturalism and an interest in wildlife and the spirit world. Sculptures can be strongly stylized, elegant and are generally highly finished. Stone has replaced ivory as the most popular carving material in contemporary Inuit art. This has led to a greater variety of colours and forms, and to the large size of many modern sculptures.
Serpentine, the distinctive dark green stone used for carving, is found within 70 km of Cape Dorset. Its colour ranges from rather dull grey to luscious, almost semi-precious greens, whites, blue-greens, and blacks. Most sculptures are still produced with hand tools, although a number of artists use small power tools as well. Saws, axes, adzes, and chisels are used for the initial shaping, with files, rasps, steel wool, and sandpaper used for the final stages.
Carvers work outside their homes, in all weather conditions, shaping the stone in a cloud of dust until the figure emerges. The figure is then sanded and polished. Bears are a favourite of some artists. There are several kinds: the dancing bear, the flying bear, the shaman bear, winter bears and summer bears.
The dancing bear is a creature, poised between heaven and earth, ready for transformation and flight. The Inuit believe that after death they return as an animal in order to continue the circle of life. Since the Bear is the “king” of the Arctic animal kingdom, returning as a polar bear is a great honour and the Inuk dances with joy.
In common with many ancient peoples, the Inuit have their legends. To them, the stars are not just put in the sky to give light or to guide wanderers. They are living things, sent by some twist of fate to roam the heavens for all time, never swerving from their paths. One of those creatures who left the earth and went to live in the sky was Nanuk the bear.
One day Nanuk was waylaid by a pack of fierce hunting dogs. Nanuk tried to give them the slip. Faster and faster he ran over the ice, but the dogs stayed on his heels. For hours the chase went on, yet Nanuk could not shake them off and in the fury and terror of the hunt, they arrived at the edge of the world.
Without stopping or noticing they plunged straight over into the sky and turned into stars. Today, astronomers see them as the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, in the constellation of Taurus. But to the Inuit they are Nanuk the bear, with a pack of savage dogs out for his blood.