Doll-making used to be the way that northern Canadian women taught their daughters how to cut, manipulate and sew hides and furs so as to make durable clothing for themselves and their families. Now the tradition is being showcased internationally as well as practiced in northern communities.
Cambridge, in the U.K., is the latest venue for this traveling exhibition of handmade dolls, “Sewing Our Traditions: Dolls of Canada’s North,” organized by the Yukon Arts Centre in Canada.
"For generations, women in northern communities used dolls to teach their daughters the important skills of cutting and sewing hides and furs," the Yukon Arts Centre explains on the exhibition's website. "These dolls record and reflect northern life, fashion and customs. Today, the art of traditional doll making is alive and well, with modern creators continuing to pass knowledge and skills from generation to generation. From miniature, intricate details such as beaded moccasins to locally trapped fur and home-tanned hides, these 30 doll makers have created evocative portraits of their communities and traditions."
The exhibit, which debuted in Vancouver during the Olympic Games in 2010, is a fascination of intricate beadwork, stitchery and craftsmanship of Canada's northern aboriginal women worldwide. The materials are all local and made by Inuit and First Nations women. The Polar Institute Show is a coup for the exhibit and the Yukon Arts Centre.
“We are thrilled that this exhibition which features traditional Inuit and First Nations dolls from across the North will be presented in such a prestigious venue,” said Mary Bradshaw, the Yukon Arts Centre’s gallery director.
The Scott Polar Research Institute, part of the University of Cambridge, is well-known for its research into both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The museum was a finalist for Britain’s most prestigious arts prize, the £100,000 Art Fund Prize 2011, according to a Yukon Arts Centre press release. Its rivals included the British Museum, which won, as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Roman Baths Museum.
“Sewing Our Traditions” premiered in Vancouver during the Olympic Games of 2010. The Cambridge exhibit opened on May 18 and will run through August 20.
Artists from the territories of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, sponsored by the respective governments, Artists Dolores Anderson (Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation), an artist from Dawson City, Yukon; Lizzie Ittinuar (Inuit, Kivalliq region), an artist from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, and Lillian Wright (Teetl’it Gwich'in First Nation), an artist from Inuvik, Northwest Territories, traveled to Cambridge with exhibition curator Jennifer Allen (Yellowknives Dene First Nation) to speak and demonstrate sewing and beading techniques in the Polar Museum at the Polar Research Institute.
“The women behind this collection of dolls are very proud and excited to be a part of a national and international tour,” Allen said in a statement from the Yukon Arts Centre. “The doll exhibit exemplifies the essence of Inuit and First Nation people's traditional lifestyle and material culture interpreted by their descendants. Although Inuit and First Nation people's traditional way of life and culture has changed along with many other indigenous groups in the world, they are still very connected to their history through oral traditions.”
The craftsmanship is meticulous, and although the artists are modern women, they consulted their elders to get every detail right, she said.
"For generations, women in northern communities used dolls to teach their daughters the important skills of cutting and sewing hides and furs," the Yukon Arts Centre explains on the exhibition's website. "These dolls record and reflect northern life, fashion and customs. Today, the art of traditional doll making is alive and well, with modern creators continuing to pass knowledge and skills from generation to generation. From miniature, intricate details such as beaded moccasins to locally trapped fur and home-tanned hides, these thirty doll makers have created evocative portraits of their communities and traditions."
“Each of the doll makers have put careful consideration into the construction of their dolls, referring to their elders for accuracy and precise interpretation of their communities history,” Allen said. “Carefully blending natural materials with modern textures to replicate tools and clothing they remember seeing their grandmothers and grandfathers wearing while harvesting on the land or during great celebrations when people gathered from far and wide. This collection of dolls is a snapshot of memories and stories of a time once lived by the indigenous people of northern Canada.”
For its part, the Polar Institute is thrilled to host them.
"The Polar Museum is delighted to continue building its working relationship with Canadian artists,” said Heather Lane, keeper of collections at the Polar Museum, in a statement. “The exhibition provides insight into northern culture through the traditional skills of sewing; the pride these women take in their work is self-evident.”
Here's a short preview of what you can expect if you happen to make it to Cambridge, England, this summer.