Cold Comfort

Today on Museum Bites we’re continuing our tour through the Dennos Museum Center’s delightful collection of Inuit art. Life within the Arctic Circle is a bone-chilling affair, but through hard work and longstanding traditions, the Inuit have carved out a cozy and communal existence. Join me for a stroll through this fascinating exhibit and along the way, we’ll learn more about the life, land, and lore of the Inuit. We begin with the humble igloo…

Igloo by Artokto, Dennos Museum Center, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Igloo by Artokto, Dennos Museum Center, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Snow Dome:  This charming little igloo by Artokto portrays Inuit ingenuity. Snow is plentiful in the Arctic and these snow-block homes can be constructed within a few short hours. Designed to accommodate a single family, igloos were built in the winter and situated near the sea for convenient hunting and fishing. Retaining walls and a sealskin flap kept biting winds at bay, and a small hole in the roof provided ventilation. Inside a small stove was used to burn seal or whale blubber and thick pelts made for a cozy interior.

Drawing of interior of igloo (1916), U.S. Library of Congress
Drawing of interior of an igloo (1916), U.S. Library of Congress

Temperatures inside the igloo averaged around freezing (i.e., 32° F or 0° C). This may seem chilly until you go outside where winter temps can plummet to -30°F (-34°C). Add to that anywhere from 1 to 160 days of darkness, and the inside of an igloo seems downright balmy. When they were not out hunting, the Inuit rode out the dark frigid winters tucked inside telling stories and playing games (click on Museum Bites: Survival Games to learn more). During the short summer months, the Inuit moved inland and into tents while their winter homes conveniently melted away. Arctic summers are ablaze in sunlight (30 to 180 days when the sun does not set) and temperatures can reach a scorching 54° F (12° C). Click on this BBC Studios: How to Build an Igloo video clip to learn more about igloo construction.

Fun Musical Fact: Inuit throat singing is a popular game typically played by two women. One takes the lead by setting a vocal rhythm, while the other echoes back the vocal beat. The object of the game is to outlast one’s opponent. The first one to laugh or break the rhythm loses. Click on this Inuit Throat Singing clip for a listen.



Arctic Buoy:  The Arctic Circle is blanketed in snow and ice eight months out of the year. The terrain is rocky and the sparse vegetation consists of shrub-like trees. The Inuit have created clever guideposts called Inuksuit to help navigate this barren expanse. John Terriak’s, The Sentinel is modeled after a specific type of Inuksuit called an Inunnguaq or “person substitute”. These arctic buoys resemble a person standing with outstretched arms and have become a popular symbol associated with the Inuit. The Inunnguaq is part of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics logo and is also featured on the Canadian Territory of Nunavut flag.



I Am the Walrus:  The Dancing Bear (1986) by Pauta Saila is a delightful depiction of a bear shimmying to a beat. Dancing and singing with wild abandon, this whimsical beast manifests the Inuit belief that animals and humans “were once one”. Animism, the belief that a spirit lies within everyone and everything, is a common theme in Inuit art. Animals are portrayed with human qualities and vice versa. Crazy Man by Kelly Pishuktee is an example of a shaman, transforming into a polar bear. Notice his fanged teeth and paws on his right hand and foot. The Inuit believed shamans could transform into animals to perform mystical tasks such as communing with the spirits to resolve conflicts, heal the sick, and guarantee a good hunt. Once their mystical duties were complete, shamans returned to their human form.

A Strong Bee (1981) by Apitak Sanguya, Dennos Museum Center, Photo by cjverb (2018)
A Strong Bee (1981) by Apitak Sanguya, Dennos Museum Center, Photo by cjverb (2018)

A Bugs Life:  Despite healthy amounts of snow and ice, brutal temps, and little vegetation or sunlight, the Arctic is home to a variety of badass bugs. For example, the Arctic bumblebee is plumper and furrier than its southern cousins. It can also heat itself up to 60° degrees warmer than the outside temperature by twitching its powerful wings. This self-heating system is an example of evolution at its finest! A Strong Bee (1981) by Apitak Sanguya is a fanciful representation of these amazing bees. In addition to bumblebees, the Arctic is host to a fair number of creepy crawlies including mosquitoes (Yes, even in the Arctic you cannot escape mosquitoes!), midges, beetles, weevils, worms, and spiders.

Brief Case (2005) by Annie Pootoogook, Dennos Museum Center, Photo by cjverb (2018)
Brief Case (2005) by Annie Pootoogook, Dennos Museum Center, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Pop Art:  Since the 1950s, western culture has slowly crept into Inuit life. Dog sleds have been traded in for ATVs or snowmobiles, permanent houses are favored over igloos, and access to the internet, cable TV, and smartphones is gradually increasing. Annie Pootoogook’s Brief Case (2005) is an Inuit spin on Pop Art. This art movement emphasizes everyday objects (think: Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans) and was first introduced in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and 1960s.

Despite this influx of technology, the Inuit have continued to honor and preserve their traditions. In 1999, the Canadian government established the Nunavut Territory—nunavut means “our land” in Inukitut. This vast northern expanse includes traditional Inuit lands. In keeping with Inuit tradition, the territory is governed by a legislature whose members do not belong to a political party. Instead, governance is achieved through consensus.

That concludes our tour through the Dennos Museum Center’s collection of Inuit art. Next week, we’ll mosey into the modern art wing and take in a few treasures. In the meantime, have a fantastic week!

Cover photo by Wonita Janzen, Pixabay


BBC Studios: How to Build an Igloo

Britannica: Nunavut

Britannica: Pop Art

Britannica: Igloo

Canadian Encyclopedia: Igloo

Canadian Encyclopedia: Inuit

Dennos Museum Center

Museum Bites: Survival Games

University of Alabama Birmingham Department of Anthropology


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