On February 24, the McCord Museum hosted the opening of a very special exhibition: Inuit Modern, The Esther and Samuel Sarick Collection. Shown last year at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Inuit Modern is on loan to the Montreal museum until the end of September 2012. The exhibit, co-curated by AGO curator Gerald McMaster and Inuit art specialist Ingo Hessel, features over 150 works by more than 70 contemporary Inuit artists.

The original collection, compiled over the last 40 years, is considered to be one of the finest of its kind, and features almost 3000 works by some of the most prominent Inuit artists of the 20th century. It is a beautiful and powerful showing that explores modern Inuit art, and how it came to be.

The carefully selected pieces on display at the McCord represent only a small portion of the original, but nevertheless successfully highlight the undeniable presence of Inuit art in present-day Canadian culture.

As with most art, history has an important role to play in its development. This is the case for contemporary Inuit art as well and the McCord has done an excellent job of juxtaposing this history throughout the exhibit.

When visiting the show visitors will learn that the evolution of Inuit art can be traced back to the 18th century when explorers, fishermen and merchants began purchasing ivory sculptures of kayaks and animals to take home to Europe. Eventually the Europeans were commissioning works and the demand for the sculptures grew.

In the 1950s, after experiencing major social and cultural upheaval, the Canadian government encouraged the Inuit to use their artistic skills as way to stimulate economy as well as preserve cultural identity. But the stereotypical and commercial sculptures that you find in souvenir shops, reminiscent of these times, is not what visitors should expect to see at this exhibit.

Instead visitors will see a collection of modern works that garnered Inuit art national and international recognition in the 1970s. This was the time that Inuit art developed distinctiveness. No longer conforming to the demand for conventional Inuit sculpture, artists, such as Karoo Ashevak and Pauta Sail, began experimenting with subject matter and personal style.

Ashevak’s works, on display at the McCord, are known for their spirituality and sense of humour. Some say he is responsible for making shamanism “cool” again. A personal favourite, his style holds particular importance because he influenced an entire generation of Kitikmeot artists.

The approach, developed in the 1970s, also reflects that fact that artists were beginning to scrutinize their societies and environments, both locally and globally, the results of which are traditionally inspired, unique, emotional and influential pieces of art.

Displayed vividly at the McCord in a calming darkened space, the works, by Ashevak and many others, are featured on pristine white pedestals. Strategically placed spotlights emphasize the brilliant detail of the sculptures and seem to bring each individual piece to life.

There are stone and whalebone sculptures, as well as drawings and prints on display. There are myriads of textures, shapes and histories to explore. It is a visual real treat and although it is a small exhibition in comparison to the Sarick collection as a whole, visitors will easily be captivated for several hours.

To complement the exhibit, the McCord is presenting a variety of films and lectures about Inuit artists and Inuit culture. The exhibition runs until September 3.

For more info: www.mccord-museum.qc.ca