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Comptes rendus / Reviews

Nuvisavik: The Place Where We Weave. By Maria Von Finckenstein, editor. (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. Pp. x + 206, ISBN 0-7735-2335-9, pbk.)

  • Janice Esther Tulk

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  • Janice Esther Tulk
    University of Alberta

Article body

Nuvisavik presents the textile art of the Inuit people and its development over the past three decades in Pangnirtung (Panniqtuuq). In 1969, after the relocation of many Inuit people from Cumberland Sound to Pangnirtung, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs searched for an economic initiative that would provide the Inuit, who until this point had been involved in trade, with a place in the growing cash economy. Having determined that the increasing interest in Native art provided a strong target market, looms were brought to the community so that hand weaving could be taught. The Inuit are known to be expert sewers, as the safety of the men in the harsh elements depended on waterproof seams. It was believed that this ability, combined with Native images, would transfer to the new medium of tapestry weaving and produce a profitable product. Donald Stuart, the first manager of hand weaving in Pangnirtung, taught basic techniques to the weavers who quickly became proficient at their work. Thirty years later, after many workshops with artists who introduced new skills to the Native weavers, the tapestries produced in Pangnirtung are now featured in museums and other collections.

The creation of tapestries in Pangnirtung is shown by Finckenstein to be a transference of traditional cultural practices into a new situation. The Inuit weavers’ preferred aesthetic for crisp lines and meticulous craftsmanship led to a modification of the weaving technique they were taught and labour-intensive techniques retained. The tapestries have a narrative aspect to them; this new medium is used as a way to communicate Inuit culture. Further, they are a means of expressing a communal identity as they depict their legends and important events in their past. This echoes similar movements in other arts, such as bronze sculptures of significant figures in Native spirituality (“Raven the Creator” by John Hoover), Native symbols cast as gold and silver jewellery (Don LaVonne), and contemporary Native music that combines traditional styles with pop and rock elements (Medicine Dream). In each of these movements, a new medium provides a means through which Native identity and culture can be expressed.

The contributors to Nuvisavik come from a variety of backgrounds and write from different perspectives. The strength of this work is in the multiple voices presented, both academic and non-academic, Native and non-Native. The result is a comprehensive account of the thirty years in which the tapestries of Pangnirtung evolved. In particular, the interviews with members of the community tell much of the experience of these people, voicing their memories of how they moved from their traditional camps to becoming weavers of tapestry. The interview segments compiled by July Papatsie complement the history written by Cathleen Knotsch. Such an approach is important as scholars struggle with the issue of how to represent their research partners and how to have their voices heard. Here, their own words are provided for the reader within a framework created by Maria Von Finckenstein.

This, however, is a site where a different approach may have been more effective. The reader is first provided with the first person accounts of members of the community, which tell that community’s history. This is followed by a historical account written in a more detached style while incorporating some quotes from informants. While I support the use of both narrative voices, it results in overlap between the two essays. A collaborative approach would have remedied this by creating a synthesis between both accounts of the past.

The greatest contribution of this book is the collection of biographies of the artists featured therein, both those who drew the initial design and those who wove it, and full colour reproductions of some of the tapestries. Several of these reproductions include the sketch from which the tapestries were interpreted. Through this visual representation, the development of the artists through the three style movements, each of which lasted approximately ten years, is clearly displayed to the reader. This compilation will prove an important study tool for both artists who weave tapestries and art historians who are interested in the style development that took place over three decades in Pangnirtung. Further, scholars whose focus is contemporary Native art and the way in which it portrays Native identity will consider it an interesting case study. Finally, it displays the way in which the change in economic systems and the resulting economic hardship in Native communities is creatively combated through an evolving tradition and the transference of skills and ideology to an alternate medium.