Inuit Culture All the Rage in France

IN PARIS'S GRAND OLD Musée de l'Homme, near the Eiffel Tower, the flow of fascinated visitors these days is steady. The museum's spotlight exhibition, Inuit: quand la parole prend forme (Inuit: When Words Take Shape), on display through March 27, offers a glimpse into a world almost unimaginably distant from the French capital: Canada's frozen Arctic. Yet it is a world that a surprising number in France have embraced and studied with care. And it's a world, some of them say, that Canadians are all too prepared to take for granted.

Consider: the launch of the exhibit at the Musée de l'Homme was attended by Jacques Chirac, France's president, whose fascination with Aboriginal art took him to NUNAVUT with Jean CHRÉTIEN in 1999 and has made him the patron of an ambitious new museum of Aboriginal art from around the world, slated to open in Paris this year. The INUIT exhibit played two years ago in Lyon, where it was a smash hit: 90,000 visitors, with long lineups on weekends. French television, radio and newspapers have given the show's Paris run rapturous coverage.

And the basis for the whole exhibition is the private art collection of one Quebec City man, Raymond Brousseau. His museum, Musée d'art Inuit Brousseau, has sat a few doors away from Quebec City's Château Frontenac hotel since 1999. But even there, Brousseau said, more than half of his visitors are Europeans - and fewer than 10 per cent Canadians.

"Canadians think they have seen Inuit art," he said. "We've seen soapstone souvenirs at airports. People think that's all there is to see." But Europeans, interested in other cultures, haven't become jaded by kitsch representations of Canada's Inuit art, so they're more willing to seek out the best.

The works on display in Paris are, in many cases, stunning: from intricate miniatures to pieces as large as the artists who made them. Brousseau points out that Inuit art on this scale could hardly be a more recent cultural development. For hundreds or thousands of years, the Inuit made the tiny and portable artworks of nomadic people: stone and bone amulets to please the gods; combs and jewellery for women; toys for children.

It wasn't until the artist James HOUSTON produced the first commercial exhibit of INUIT ART in Montreal in 1949 that a market opened in the South (that is, the parts of Canada where most of us live) for big, permanent works. So Inuit art evolved to meet a modern market opportunity. It's a dialogue between ancient traditions and a modern audience. That's the whole point of the exhibition title, When Words Take Shape. The old stories were passed down in a tradition that was timeless until it became concrete.

The words, of course, were spoken in a number of Arctic languages, Inuktitut chief among them. Here, too, Paris enjoys a surprising advance over our own country. At the Institut national des langues et civilizations orientales - France's most prestigious school of international culture and civilization, tucked away in the 7th arrondissement surrounded by antique shops - a Quebec-born woman named Michèle Therrien teaches Inuktitut and Inuit culture to a class of about 30 students.

This French fascination with things Inuit, from the Elysée Palace down to individual students, "isn't a craze or a fashion," Therrien said. "That would be something fleeting, limited in time. No, this is a lasting interest. One with a history and one that remains current."

The history, of course, is the history of French colonization in North America. Even today, long after Quebec and the rest of Canada became British colonies, the link continues. "Quebec is an extremely popular French tourist destination," Therrien said. "There are 18 Canadian studies centres in French universities."

Nor is the presence of Inuit art fleeting or temporary in Paris. On rue St-Merri, behind the immense Centre Pompidou modern-art museum, is the tiny Galerie Saint Merri, a private gallery devoted to Inuit art. Martine Léna, the gallery's director, often works with Inuksuk, a non-profit association devoted to increasing knowledge of Inuit culture among the French. It was on a trip to Canada in the 1980s that Léna, an artist, and her husband, an architect, discovered Inuit art, she said. "We found it so beautiful and so strong that we had to introduce it in France."

Raymond Brousseau only wishes Canadians could discover, or rediscover, the same passion for the best Inuit art. Of the Paris exhibit, what makes him proudest is a sequence of sculptures near the end devoted to revealing the styles of individual artists. There's the minimalist and defiantly modern style of Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok, 70, from Arviat in Nunavut, who barely modifies the surfaces of heavy pieces of rock to make haunting figures. There's Mattiusi Iyaituk, 16 years younger, from Ivujivik in northern Quebec, who creates enigmatic sculptures that sometimes hang by threads of ligament from armatures of bone.

"People think Inuit art is like some all-dressed pizza that mixes everything together," Brousseau said. "That's false. These are individuals. Personalities, with individual styles of expression."

Maclean's February 14, 2005