The Art and Beauty of Inuit Culture

We jump into AA’s (Arnaujuq, our guide) dusty jeep and ride through town to our first stop of the day, The Matchbox Gallery. 

We stop at a building that could be mistaken for any other, but make no mistake, this structure is special, at least, from the inside. This is a well-known place where artisans come to fulfill, learn and enhance their craft. With its experienced Inuit instructors, Nunavut carries an unparallelled ceramics program that works integrally with community-based artists. 

While the modalities range from carvings, paintings, jewellery and printmaking, Rankin Inlet is the sole community in the world to produce fine-art quality Inuit ceramics. Wall to wall with beautiful art, shelves are lined with soapstone carvings, ceramic sculptures, bone carvings, paintings, jewellery and more.

Pierre Aupilardjuk, the humble and reserved manager of the gallery, who began teaching at the shop after having taken courses there in 1992, shows us impressive pieces from various local artists, including himself. Initially, he began teaching adults with disabilities, learning from them as much as he taught, but he’s broadened his teachings to include all people.

He takes us through every nook and cranny of the studio/shop. Most of the ceramic pieces here are handcrafted, not spun or molded, and I learn what I originally believe is a glazing technique creating a combination of white, grey, brown and black on the surface, is actually not glaze at all, but rather a marbling effect.

The marbling effect is, in fact, done by placing the ceramic piece, having previously dried for two weeks before being fired in the kiln, in a sawdust fire overnight. The uneven heat of the fire creates an exquisite mottled look. The caribou bone carvings are no less impressive; they are smaller pieces, but require no less work as they are finely detailed, mostly with scenes of dog sleds and igloos.

The soapstone carvings, mostly of belugas and polar bears (or Qilalugaqs and Nanuq in Inuktitut), are what Pierre primarily did before discovering ceramics. Having represented Nunavut more than once on national and international stages, Pierre has travelled to Yellowknife, Greenland, Winnipeg and Minneapolis for exhibitions, demonstrations and events, and artwork from The Matchbox Gallery can be found in both distinguished and private galleries all over North America.

Pierre tells us that over the years he has come to prefer ceramics, as they are much more forgiving. “If you make a mistake,” he muses, “you just wet it again and fix it. With soapstone, one mistake and your piece can be lost.” I suppose we all love another chance to succeed, I muse myself.

Here at The Matchbox Gallery in Rankin Inlet, the artists have opportunity, but it comes with their well-earned skill and dedication to craft. 

Text by Jaclyn Truss Photo by David Spadavecchia