Inuit music and art collide in new MMFA exhibition

Tusarnitut! Music Born of the Cold brings together an array of Inuit art, artifacts and recordings from the 1950s to the present day.

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Inuit music is honored in a new exhibition at the the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

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Tusarnitut! Music Born of the Cold, which runs Thursday through March 12, brings together an evocative array of Inuit sculptures, paintings, artifacts, archival film footage and recordings from the 1950s to the present day, all related one of the two main forms of Inuit music. : drum dancing and throat singing.

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The title of the exhibition means “sounds pleasing to the ear,” explained Lisa Qiluqqi Koperqualuk, curator and mediator of Inuit art at the MMFA, in a video message during the press tour of the exhibition.

“By collecting artwork that shows our music – and shows the pride of Inuit artists in the Far North – I’m proud to show our culture in this way,” she said.

Koperqualuk was not present due to her new role as vice-president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council Canada. Fittingly, there is a circumpolar theme to the exhibit, which includes examples of these art forms from Nunavut to Greenland and Chukotka, Siberia.

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A mask described as having Russian or Inuit characteristics is one of many on display at Tusarnitut!, Music Born from the Cold, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
A mask described as having Russian or Inuit characteristics is one of many on display at Tusarnitut!, Music Born from the Cold, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

“The exhibition was designed as a confrontation between visual art and Inuit music,” said ethnomusicologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez, guest curator of the exhibition and professor emeritus at the Université de Montréal, who makes research on Inuit music since the 1970s and who has contributed to several works. from his personal collection at the show.

“Inuit carvings are immediately accepted by the public — representations of a man or a woman drumming,” he noted. “But throat singing and drum dancing are perceived by us non-Inuit as boring because we don’t understand the words, which is exciting for Inuit.

“The purpose of this exhibition is to show the diversity of Inuit music and to make viewers understand that Inuit music is complex and very important to Inuit culture. The interest of bringing together all these sculptures, prints and this music in the same exhibition is to underline the richness of Inuit art, and its musical dimensions unknown to the general public.

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Nattiez is the author of The Music that Comes from the Cold: Arts, Songs and Dances of the Inuit, a 488-page art book published by the Presses de l’Université de Montréal as part of the exhibition.

Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted by a map showing the geography of circumpolar Inuit communities and peoples, as well as a glossary of Inuktitut terms.

Two Women Performing Katajjaniq, a striking 1974 print by Lucassie Echalook, is described in the accompanying text as “probably the best known and most widely disseminated performance of Inuit throat singing.”

Manasie Akpaliapik’s 1987 sculpture Female Drum Dancer is a playful act of subversion in that it shows a woman engaged in the typically male tradition of drum dancing, according to Charissa von Harringa, the exhibition’s associate curator and doctoral student at Concordia in Contemporary Circumpolar Art.

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One of the exhibition spaces of Tusarnitut!, Music born from the cold, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
One of the exhibition spaces of Tusarnitut!, Music born from the cold, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

A section of the exhibition is devoted to the drum dance and its link to shamanism, storytelling and the success of the hunt. Visitors can use their smartphone to scan QR codes and listen to the musical accompaniment of several works via the MMFA app.

Another section is devoted to throat singing, a throat singing and breathing game usually performed by two women facing each other with their arms intertwined, as depicted in Kenojuak Ashevak’s impressive 1982 engraving Guardians of Katajjaniq.

A smaller room showcases modern evolutions of these traditional practices, incorporating instruments such as accordion and electric guitar, and reflecting the divisive influence of the Catholic Church on Inuit expression.

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Katajjausivallaat, the Cradled Rhythm, by Nancy Saunders (also called Niap), a 2018 installation acquired by the MMFA consisting of three suspended Brazilian soapstones, or soapstones, with a soundtrack (via headphones) of ocean sounds and throat singing , is particularly striking.

The work is emblematic of Tusarnitut!’s fusion of Inuit art past and present, according to von Harringa.

“I think this is a very important exhibition for this institution,” she said, “as it highlights the intangible heritage so often excluded from Indigenous art exhibits. Traditionally it’s carvings and prints, but there’s so much more to contemporary Inuit art today.

“There’s a strong cultural resurgence that’s happening with music and language revitalization, and that’s really important for Inuit self-determination and sovereignty and for the recovery of those cultural practices that were suppressed in the past and which are evolving and continuing today.

IN ONE LOOK : Tusarnitut! Music born from the cold is at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from Nov. 10 to March 12. For tickets and information, visit

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