Norman Verano has been pleased by the impact his exhibit of Inuit drawings is having on visitors.
“I think a lot of people were really quite astonished to see these drawings. Many people were not aware they existed and were taken aback by the kinds of things people shared back then,” says Vorano, Agnes Curator of Indigenous Art, and an assistant professor of art history at Queen’s University.
Fifty original drawings by Inuit men, women and youth from the communities of Clyde River, Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay, all made in the early months of 1964, are currently being presented at the Burnaby Art Gallery in an exhibit called Picturing Arctic Modernity: North Baffin Drawings from 1964.
In 1964, the late Terry Ryan, artist and art advisor in Cape Dorset, went to the North Baffin region, distributed paper and pencils to men and women, and invited them to make drawings of anything they wanted, says Vorano.
“I think many people were intrigued by this guy. Most of them had never been asked to draw or record anything,” he says.
Over a hundred people had participated in creating this artwork, Verano notes, and when Ryan went to collect the drawings, he was given close to 2,000 pieces. The drawings depicted perspectives on life and the way it was changing for people, their memories and knowledge, as well as their history.
“They were vast in terms of what people chose to record,” comments Verano.
The exhibition consists of 50 drawings placed in three categories: Conveying Identities, On the Land, and Our Stories.
The categories are there to add structure to the exhibit, says Vorano.
The drawings are accompanied by interviews with people, some of whom have first hand knowledge of the artists, going through the collections and sharing their thoughts.
Verano feels that people in the North are in the process of realizing that this drawing collection is an important part of traditional Indigenous knowledge and that the collection was facilitated at a time when very few people seemed to care about what that knowledge meant.
“I think people in the north are only now starting to recognize how really important this collection of drawings can be,” says Vorano.
Vorano explains that linguists in the North and language teachers also see value in these drawings as an opportunity to teach different concepts and terms that are rarely used today and to promote language study and language retention.
“A lot of the writing on the drawings is done in a style that’s no longer used, so the interpreters and translators that we worked with on the drawings were different. [There were] translators for the videos and translators for the exhibition text,” he says.
The process of translation also aided the exhibition to reach its current form, Verano explains.
“Translati[ng] all the material required different kinds of skills, so the kind of input we received was extensive and really did shape the project in ways that were quite useful,” he adds.
Vorano is now working on a database for the exhibit.
“Exhibitions are fleeting so what we’re starting to build now is a database that allow[s] people in all communities to view these drawings and input and share [their] knowledge with each other,” he continues.
A part of history
Vorano explains while in University, he became acutely aware that the art history he was learning was different from the art he had growing up.
“Being from Northern Ontario I came to recognize that there were many histories that were not at all acknowledged or even shared in standard art history when I went to university in the 1990’s,” says Vorano. “Art is to explore and research histories that are not generally taught in our history curriculum, to reconnect communities with collections of cultural heritage.”
“That’s where this project comes from and where it’s going,” he adds.