Materials: cast polymer resin
Dimensions: 12 centimeters tall
Place acquired: Tourist souvenir shop, Toronto
Place of manufacture: unknown
Imagine what it must feel like to be a member of an Inuit community in the arctic north of Canada. For as long as you can remember your culture has been under attack. Christian missionaries have forbidden your old beliefs such that your community can barely remember them. Your language has been suppressed at various times, your traditional way of life has been curtailed and made effectively impossible, and you live in relative poverty on the fringes of the massive consumer system to the south.
But then certain bits of your old culture suddenly become popular in the south. Your art becomes fashionable and you are encouraged to do more of it. Your old culture is lauded by the political class as part of the country’s vibrant mix. And one of your ancient customs – the construction of human shaped megaliths called inuksuk, in the arctic landscape – becomes a national symbol, even used as the logo for the Vancouver Olympic Games in 2010.
Inuksuk figures now fill the souvenir shops of Canadian cities, and with this new-found popularity has come a rather vague explanation of the meaning and purpose of these figures, a version of which will accompany most souvenir purchases. A typical example reads:
‘The mysterious stone figures can be found throughout the circumpolar world. Inukshuk are monuments made of unworked stones that are used by the Inuit for communication and survival. The Inuit make them in different forms for a variety of purposes: as navigation or directional aids, to mark a place of respect or memorial for a beloved person, or to indicate migration routes or places where fish can be found. Others were objects of veneration, signifying places of power or the abode of spirits.’
The catch-all vagueness is deliberate. In its new popular form the Inuksuk serves as a sort of generic symbol of welcome, inclusiveness and co-operation useful to Canada’s modern view of itself.
My version is a convincing little replica. It is mass-produced though, and certainly not by Inuit folk. It may even have been made as far away as China.