San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tapestry exhibit depicts Inuit way of life

“Culture on Cloth,” an exhibit of tapestries by Canadian Inuit women, is presently gracing the walls of the Sophia Wanamaker Gallery in the Costa Rican-North American Cultural Center, in eastern San José’s Barrio Dent neighborhood.

Artist Irene Avaalaaqiaq, an Inuit elder, grew up in Canada’s remote Arctic tundra region, raised by her grandmother after her parents and grandfather passed away. For a long time, Avaalaaqiaq said, she didn’t know that any other people existed outside her own. She listened to her grandmother’s stories over the years, and eventually began to transform this oral tradition into art. Her work is among the 19 beautiful tapestries that make up the exhibit.

Judith Varney Burch, the owner and curator of the exhibit, said many people find Avaalaaqiaq’s story hard to believe.

“Can you imagine not knowing there are any other people out there?” she asked. “It was always the igloo in the winter, or the tent in the summer, and the grandmother would just tell her stories. And so this is what landed in her mind, and this is what she’s put on cloth.”

Made of coarse, thick wool, the colorful pieces depict hunting scenes and other traditional symbols of Inuit culture. Caribou dance across one; icy igloos and tundra are surrounded by animals in others. Most of the artists are elderly, and six of the 12 have passed away. Each tapestry was individually crafted in each artist’s home and represents their visions, stories and memories, Burch said.

All the artists are from Beaver Lake, a small Inuit community of 1,300 inhabitants in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. The Inuit people have lived in the Canadian Arctic for millennia. Their intimate relationship with the land, including the essential skills of sewing and hunting, manifests itself in their art. So far, the exhibit has been displayed in Mexico, Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia, Latvia, Russia, France, El Salvador, Guatemala and now Costa Rica. It is slated to travel next to Trinidad and Tobago and Argentina. 

Burch, a research collaborator for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, began collecting Inuit art roughly 25 years ago. She was motivated to created the “Culture on Cloth” exhibit to educate people about the Inuit people’s vanishing way of life.

The exhibit will be on display through Feb. 26 at the cultural center in Barrio Dent, 150 meters north of La Favorita gas station. A series of accompanying documentaries about the Inuit people is being shown at the center’s Eugene O’Neill Theater; the last film of the series, “My Village in Nunavik,” will be shown Feb. 21 at 7:45 p.m.

For information, call 2207-7554.

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