Artistic Topics

Why polar bears are dancing?



Who have never seen an Inuit carving depicting a dancing bear? Indeed, dancing bears are the most popular topic within contemporary Inuit art even if polar bears actually don’t dance in what we call “real life”, I mean among human beings world.

The topic of dancing bears comes from Inuit cosmology where universe (silajjuaq in Inuktitut, the Inuit language) is inhabited by human beings (humans, animals, and vegetables), deceased’s (inuviniit) and spirits (tuurnngait); all live in different but inter-penetrating worlds. Each human being is provided with an anirniq (breathing, breath of life) and a tarniq (spirit) which integrates a new animal or human body when the subject dies. Inuit conception of the world represents a continuum, where each element is a part of a bigger whole. This is still relevant today although there officially is no more shamans within Inuit territory since most Inuit people became Christians in the XIXth - XXthcenturies.

In the old days, shamans served as intermediary between these three worlds thus, maintaining the balance. Shamans travelled from beings’ world to the deceased’s or spirits’ world flying through the air or water to keep connection between all inhabitants of the universe. Shamans got strength and power from protector auxiliary spirits (tuurnngait) who help him/her to realize this task. Polar bear was often one of these helpful spirits because this animal is physically and symbolically very powerful.

Different rituals were practiced when shamans wanted to get connection with other humans beings (who live far away), or dead people, or invisible entities; shamans used to dance playing drums in order to call shamans’ helpful spirits. When they come, shaman’s visible appearance would change; this is the exact moment when the shaman and the bear (or any protector spirit else) were getting connected thus, merging together their tarniq (spirit), their anirniq (breathing), and their bodies. Then we see a polar bear dancing and playing drums (or a shaman acting like a bear); Inuit artists like carving and drawing this topic. We could even see dancing whales, dancing seals, dancing walruses, dancing caribous, dancing hares, or even dancing inuksuit (inuksuk in singular).

Here we have the meaning of dancing bears following the traditional Inuit way, and polar bears are still dancing among Inuit art, and for our greatest pleasure!



Arctic birds as artistic topics


Many kind of birds come up North during the spring time, then they leave on fall to down South. According to Inuit hunters and scientists, the Nunavut territory has over hundred species of birds nearly all of which are migratory such as ducks, geese, swans, loons, falcons, cranes, plovers, gulls, terns, etc. Few birds spend the winter in the Arctic, with only the raven (tulugaq or tulugajjuaq), snowy owl (ukpik or ukpijjuaq) or rock ptarmigan (aqiggivik).

Women and children hunt birds for food (mostly ducks, geese, white and rock ptarmigans) while they also provide them in materials clothes. Beside a food source Inuit people had several other ways of using birds: skins from larger birds were used as towels, wings have been used to dust, sweep or refresh (like a fan), skins were used as make containers, slippers and if caribou were scarce parkas. Nowadays, using birds is still relevant not only for food, but also as wings are used like a personal fan, and feathers are useful for making warmer clothes and pillows, for examples.

On a symbolic point of view, birds keep a strong meaning as the mean symbol of the spring time linked to the return of the sun, the melting ice and the warming days. Among Inuit cosmology, many birds take an active part in myth through the oral tradition. The story of Lumaaq and the story of the man that was married to a goose (see texts below) are one of those, for examples.

All of these reasons seem to explain why birds are so important within Inuit carvings and graphic arts (drawings and prints). Some well-known artists make the bird as main iconographic topic on their art: through Kenojuak Ashevak’s drawings and prints; or with carvers like Adamie Qummiaquk, Ningeotsiak Ashoona, Tony Curley and Pudlaalik Shaa. Tukiki Manomee use also birds like loons as element parts of transformation scenes linked to seals, walrus, polar bears and shamans.




Sources of inspiration within Inuit art


The immediate environment and individual experiences as well as collective (related to the history of families and arctic communities) are the main sources of artistic inspiration, including themes represented from shamanism and imagination.

Since its beginning in the 1950’s, contemporary Inuit art intends for the international art market - North America and Europe in particular – actually for Qallunaat, non-Inuit people. Developed at first in commercial purposes, the artistic creation in Nunavut and Nunavik exceeds nevertheless this single aim: contemporary art assigns to Inuit people a new identity, linked to the subjects represented in artworks. Inuit artists are unanimous when they talk about their artistic practices: “the importance of the issue takes precedence over everything else.” The artist’s intent added to the final meaning determine significantly the choice of topics; artworks thus becoming a narrative aid.

The hunting activity is a key component of Inuit culture and is naturally a favorite artistic theme all the more carvers are predominantly male - then hunters – as well as drawers and print-makers in early 1960. Let us remember that when the artists don’t work, they go hunting most of the time according to the weather. Really important in Inuit society, the hunting game is also present as iconographic subject on different forms. Indeed, marine mammals and terrestrial often appear alone or in a group, chased by human or animal predators, as well as actors of myths or related to shamanism. Polar bear, caribou, seal, walrus, narwhal, and beluga whales, but also fishes and birds (snow owls, crows and loons) correspond to the most popular animal themes in Inuit art. The daily life is also a major topic even more important in graphic art (drawings and prints) than in carving. Despite the major place taken by hunting scenes in Inuit art, the illustration of women activities - like mother and child, food sharing, preparation of skins - raises in conjunction with the increasing feminization of graphic artists.

Today, Inuit artists draw inspiration at the same time from the past and present that means their artistic imagery both refers to the nomadic lifestyle and the actual sedentary way of life. Inuit subjects represented by contemporary artists contribute to the transmission and the recovery of traditional knowledge, whose process of Christianization engaged since the late nineteenth century and the forced schooling while the mid twentieth has deprived them. Foreign to the notion of “l’art pour l’art”, Inuit artworks like drawings, prints, paintings, carvings, tapestries as pottery work as narrations. If the history of art (descended from a Western tradition) pains to accord some attention to the artist’s discourses, Inuit artworks cannot be separated from orality; even since Inuit culture comes from an oral tradition still relevant today that is based on collective and individual experiences.

Inuit art became explicit outside the Inuit territories through its iconographic richness as the dynamism of artistic creation.  Inuit artists play today an important role in the contemporary society: their strong involvement in cultural domain provides them with a new status locally and internationally as spokespersons of a culture that is changing and being open to the outside world while still being anchored in its ancient traditions.



HESSEL, Ingo, 1998, Inuit Art: An Introduction, Vancouver/Toronto, Douglas & McIntyre.




Transformation scenes


Transformation scenes are delighted topics among Inuit artists as well as Inuit art collectors. There is so many different transformations depicted in art from the Arctic and each of them is unique. Many artists depict transformation scenes into carving, drawing or print such as Nick Sikkuak, Matiusi Ayaituk, Simon Tukumi, Alasau Sharky, Joe Ikidlak, Maudie Ohitook, Tukiki Manumi, Markusie Papigatok, Napachie Ashoona. Carving or drawing a transformation scene could be consisting in depicting different parts of animals’ and humans’ bodies put together to form a new creature. But it is not easy as it looks like!

Transformations are strong meaningful topics in reference to Inuit cosmology and shamanism. According to Inuit people, the universe (silajjuaq) is organized around three worlds: one where live human beings (humans, animals, vegetables); another one inhabited by dead animals or humans; and, a last one occupied by spirits (tuurnngait). These three worlds are different but inter-penetrating and the shaman serves as intermediary between these worlds thus maintaining the balance. He can be helped by protector auxiliary spirits - tuurnngait - to realize this task; they get to the shaman strength and power.

The conception of the Inuit world represents a continuum, where each element is a part of a whole. Each human being can change his/her own body then integrates a new one, animal or human. This time could be one kind of transformation scene depicted into carving or drawing; but it is not the only one. Many artists today don’t know much about shamanism as they didn’t experiment it themselves, except the elders.  Artistic depictions linked to shamanism are however still important today since Inuit elders pass on traditional stories to young generations through orality and art.

The power of transformation expresses itself on many Inuit stories and myths from Alaska, Greenland and Canada. We could remember the story of Uinigumasuittuq, “the one who didn’t get married”: deceived by a dog who turned into a human: she married him, got children mid-dog mi-human who gave birth to White, Natives and Inuit people.

Another myth talks significantly about transformation: this is the story of the Sun and the Moon, such as this version collected in 1899 by Edward Nelson in Alaska (McDonald, 1998: 272):

In a coast village once lived a man and his wife who had two children, a girl and a boy. When these children grew large enough, so that the boy could turn over the gravel stone, he became in love with his sister. Being constantly importuned by the boy, his sister finally, to avoid him, floated away into the sky and became the moon. The boy has pursued her ever since, becoming the sun, and sometimes overtakes and embraces her, thus causing an eclipse of the moon.



McDONALD, 1998, The Arctic sky: Inuit astronomy, star lore, and legend, Iqaluit, Nunavut Research Institute.

SALADIN D’ANGLURE, Bernard (ed.), 2002, Interviewing Inuit Elders. Inuit cosmology and shamanism, Iqaluit, Nunavut Arctic College.



Dancing bear in contemporary art from the Arctic


Have you ever seen a dancing bear represented into carving, print or drawing by an Inuit artist? Of course you did and it is not surprising because in Inuit art, dancing bear is the most popular iconographic subject. We can see so many artworks illustrating dancing bears on the international art market! But what does it mean?


Dancing bear’s meaning

There is not only one explanation about the dancing bear through Inuit art and culture. Actually, the most popular signification of this topic is linked to shamanism and spirits world. According to the Inuit thought, the universe is inhabited by human beings (humans, animals, vegetables), deceased’s and spirits (tuurnngait) each who live in different but inter-penetrating worlds. Every human being is provided with an anirniq “breathing, breath of life” which, when the subject dies integrates a new animal or human body. The conception of the Inuit world represents a continuum, where every element is a part of a whole.

The shaman serves as intermediary between these various worlds and maintains the balance. She/he can travel from a world to the other one, flying through the air or water,  thus entering communication with the deceased’s or spirits’ world as she/he can change its appearance and be human and animal at the same time… This is what we called the shaman’s transformation.

The shaman can be helped by protector auxiliary spirits - tuurnngait - to realize this task; they get to the shaman strength and power. The polar bear could be one of thesetuurnngait and while the shaman is calling him, she/he is playing drums and dancing. Most of the times, when Inuit artists represent a dancing bear; this is precisely the moment when the shaman and the bear are getting connected thus, their spirit and their body merging together.


Its origin within contemporary art

In historical perspective, the first dancing bear was carved by Pauta Saila, a talented artist who lived and worked in Kinngait (Cape Dorset) in Nunavut. Born in December 1917 and recently passed away (June 2009), he lived with his second wife Pitaloosie Saila, a well-known graphic artist.

Pauta Saila produced a wonderful variety of subjects in carving, drawing and print. He realized his first dancing bear carving in the middle of the 1950s. Quickly, art collectors were captivated by this kind of topic and the demand on the international art market grew up. Today, so many artists from every Inuit communities carve or draw dancing bears as well as dancing caribous or belugas such as Moe Pootoogook, Michael Samayuallie, Padlaya Qiatsuk, Johnny Papigatok, Mattiusie Tunillie, Ottokie Ashoona, Kananginak Putuguq, etc.





Mother and child within Inuit carving


The representation of a mother and her child in sculpture is not a frequent subject in the Inuit art contrary to the qallunaat art (not Inuit) where this topic appears in the religious as profane representations. This theme remains relatively recent in the history of Inuit art although it is more present in contemporary graphics art than in sculpture.

Formerly, the miniature representation of human characters (inunnguaq it Inuktitut) only consisted of the making of shaman amulets and toys for the children, in the form of small ivory or bone carvings and skins dolls. It is only from 1950s with the launch of the artistic programs in the Arctic that raises the stone sculpture of humans.

Carved characters in stone are mostly hunter with or without game in small size. This topic is particularly spread, especially since the artists are above all hunters, formerly as today; their artistic creations are drawn from their own experiences.

Inuit women also involve in the artistic production: if formerly they dedicated themselves more in drawing, in tapestry or in the clothing making, women of the Arctic communities want to diversify their activities while increasing their incomes and some of them started carving…. Thus, new iconographic topics appear with more feminine subjects such as the maternity and the mother to the child or feminine activities in camps.

Sat or up, the mother is represented almost always with her child in the hood of her amauti (feminine jacket): only the head of the baby is then visible. It is about an identical very strong symbol because the amauti remains the feminine traditional garment par excellence, in a society where the maternity is very valued. This mode of representation is the most the common, even if sometimes, the mother carries her child in the arms or holds him/her the hand if this one is bigger.

The mother and child topic is one of Mary Usutsiaq’s favorite subjects, from Kinngait. Nevertheless, the artists who sculpture the theme of the maternity are not exclusively women: Booby Aupaluqtuq, a young sculptor from Inujjuaq, represents this theme among the others. 





Tuktuit (caribous) among Inuit art and society


Within Inuit society from the past and the present, tuktuit “caribous” (tuktu in the singular) take an important place. Among the contemporary art, in sculpture as in pictorial art (painting, drawing, print), the caribou is one of the most represented game with the polar bear and the seal.

The caribou remains mostly represented by the male artists. Indeed, men know perfectly well caribous to have carefully observed them for a long time while they hunt game. Artists may reproduce so realistically their movements, their attitudes or their expressions into carving or graphics. Caribous are Tim Pitseolak's favourite theme in Kinngait and Andrew Qappik’s one in Panngiqtuuq, for examples. The animal may be depicted lonely or in herd as main topic of the artwork or as game within a hunting scene. Caribous are also often associated with traditional myths.

Formerly, caribous were essential for Inuit as source of food and raw materials for the clothing making, the construction of summer tents in skins, the sled dogs manufacturing and tools in bone and antlers, as well as realization of carvings and amulets.

The Inuit writer Taamusi Qumaq thus explains in Inuktitut: “The caribou is a walker and a game. He was used formerly enormously by our ancestors and their descendants: the skin was considered as garment, its meat as food, its nerves was threads, and its skin was considered as tents by our ancestors.” (Qumaq, 1991: 224).

Nowadays, Inuit still hunt caribous which all the parts of which are used: people eat their meat, raw, frozen, dried or boiled; their skins are still used for clothes as mittens and their bones and antlers are carved.



QUMAQ, Taamusi, 1991, Inuit uqausillaringit. Les véritables mots Inuit / The genuine Inuit words, Québec, Association Inuksiutiit Katimajiit / Inukjuaq et Montréal, Institut Culturel Avataq.





But what is an inuksuk*? Characteristics of the Arctic Regions, inuksuit are simply stony piles (inuksugait in inuktitut) which the silhouette sometimes looks like humans... But let us Paaliin Pilip, an Inuit author Inuit from Iqaluit, explain it:

Inuksugait always had a very big utility. They had different meanings). Inuit had at first two ways of construction. The first one looks like men. They have arms, leg and head. According to the second method, they were built by stony piles.”

The biggest inuksugait had legs, arms and heads; they were placed on the top of mountains and they indicated meat caches. Far off, if you see smaller one, you can say “here is a cache”.

On the shore, the built inuksuit were considered as symbols by those who moved. If they wondered where to accost, they knew it then certainly. And those were used when the weather was bad.

Those who were only stony piles also had another function in aid of people who did not know the territory. If you get towards an inuksuk, you can see one then another one. If you simply follow them, you can join the camps.

[Extracted from Nunavimiutituulitiqsugit uqausignit, translation from Inuktitut]


The inuksuk serves thus even today as guide for hunters and the visitors moving in the tundra and can also indicate an important place such as a site of hunting or fishing, a meat cache, or a sacred ancestral place.

We find inuksuit almost everywhere in the world today; whether it is in front of the Hotel of the Parliament of the city of Quebec (Quebec), to the European Parliament in Strasbourg (France), on the Place of Canada in Guatemala (Guatemala) or in your garden.

The inuksuk represents a symbol of peace between the civilizations in the world today and was chosen as the symbol for the 2010 Olympics Games in Vancouver. It also appears on the Nunavut flag since the creation of the Nunavut Territory in 1999. The inuksuk became one of the strong symbols of circumpolar Inuit people, that is why Inuit sculptors as Pits Koperkualuk or Pia Saila represent them with pleasure.


*An inuksuk in the singular (pronounce: enookshook); inuksuit in the plural.



GRABURN, Nelson, 2004, “Inuksuk: Icon of the Inuit of Nunavut” in Etudes/Inuit/Studies, n◦28, vol.1, pp. 69-82.



Nanuq, “polar bear” within Inuit art and society


Polar bears - nanuit in Inuktitut (singular: nanuq) - are omnipresent in the Inuit culture and the daily life, formerly as today. It is not thus surprising that the bear is a subject of preference for artists in all domains such as carving as graphic arts.

Who saw contemporary Inuit carvings immediately represents himself a polar bear… A dancing bear, do you say? The artistic representations of dancing bears actually appeal to Qallunaat, but this subject is widely spread to answer at the request of the market. Bears commonly walk on the ice, swim or hunt seals but they don’t dance….

Nanunnguaq say Inuit people to speak about artistic representations of bears: it can be translated by “miniature copy or replica of a polar bear” referencing to the reality. Artists who carve or draw bears make it from their own experience, because they are also hunters. They know bears very well as they have observed them with attention for a long time; that is why they succeed in representing their body and their movements with so much realism and exactness.

The polar bear is not a harmless artistic subject. Considered by Inuit as an object of greed and a prestigious source; the bear is the animal who looks like most the Inuit people, taking place at the top of the animal hierarchy. As an Inuk, the polar bear is a predator, what implies relations of rivalry and competition: they hunt both the same game and represent a mutual threat.

A marine and ground mammal at the same time, the bear is cunning, powerful and comfortable in the water as on ground. We say that humans imitate the polar bear’s way of hunting. It is not rare to find bears near villages while they look for food and their strength inspires fear and respect. “When they are starved, polar bears are not afraid. When they are not hungry, they are afraid of the people” wrote Taamusi Qumaq (Sivulitta piusituqangit, 1988).

Consequently, it is not surprising that the polar bear is so present in the cosmology. He appears as one in the main sources of shaman power by taking place between the invisible powers and the Inuit society. So, shamans often used of bone or ivory amulets representing polar bears. Today, polar bears are one of the most represented subjects by Inuit artists, thus coming within the tradition.



RANDA, Vladimir, 1986, L’ours polaire et les Inuit, Paris, Sélaf.



Tupilait from Greenland


The tupilaq (tupilait in the plural) is a strong identity symbol of the Greenlander Inuit today as the Inuksuk is the one the Canadian Inuit. Even if they are both spread on an international scale on the art market and the tourist sphere, Tupilaq as Inuksuk draw their origin from ancestral historic past.

In Kalaalisut (the Inuit language in Greenland), the word tupilaq means a “spirit” or an “ancestor’s soul” and made previously reference to a sinister spirit power. In the past, tupilait were indeed used as a tools of revenge against enemies.

Each tupilaq was created by a shaman who combined several parts from human and animals (like bones, caribou antlers, skin or hair) to make a sort of small figurine with a scaring appearance, half human and half animal.

This created object was then celebrated by a shamanic powerful song over it thus, receiving the spirit requested by the shaman. As becoming alive into the human world, the tupilaq was then  put out to sea or into the victim’s qajaq (kayak) to let it realize its task (kill the enemy).

However, it was not without risk because if the victim had greater shamanic powers than its attacker (if the victim had not any shamanic power himself/herself, he/she could be helped by somebody else who had some), he/she could repel its attack and instead send the tupilaq back to kill its creator.

The island of Kulusuk in the Ammassalik area (East Greenland) is a famous place where tupilait are created today. They are currently made from ivory, whales bones or caribou antlers. But don’t be afraid! Today’s tupilait are harmless; they exercise their powers only on the artists’ creativity and the art collectors’ imagination....

Woman shaman by Uriah Puqiqnak


This woman shaman is representative of Uriash Puqiqnak’s carvings with a great figure standing made out of whale bone, including ivory for eyes and caribou antler for teeth. The face of this woman shows an open smiling mouth where teeth appear separated by a small space with widely opened eyes, and large nostrils. This figure is wearing traditional Inuit female symbols: she has an ulu (female hemi-circular knife used for cutting meat and skin) in her hand and she wears an amauti (traditional female piece of clothing).

Although this figure was identified by the artist as a shaman, there is no specific symbol as we usually see with carvings of shamans; I mean the figure is not playing drums or is not dancing. Here is a standing woman with an ulu, and it seems like she is talking or singing as we can see her tongue in her mouth. Maybe she is «only» an old woman who is singing with her ulu in her hand for cutting something. But she is actually an expressive woman with a strong energy.

Uriash Puqiqnak is considered as a leader as an artist as well as a former territorial and municipal politician in Canada. He served as mayor of Uqsuttuq (Gjoa Haven) in Nunavut and as a member of the Nunavut legislature form 1999 to 2004. He was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada in 2005. Despite leaving politics, Uriash Puqiqnak is still involved in community service. He is currently serves as a member of the Nunavut Tourism Board and is chair of Parks Canada History steering committee.

Uriash Puqiqnak started carving seriously in 1977, after he sold his first carving two years ago. His favorite topics are linked to daily life from his memories and own experiences when he was younger. He likes depicting women with child in their amauti (traditional female clothes), hunters with game, children playing, shamans performing, etc. Like other artists from this area, his artistic style is very different than the one from Baffin Island with expressive faces mixing different materials.

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