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National Museum of Wildlife Art to Exhibit Transformations: Wildlife in Inuit Art and Culture

September 25, 2023

The National Museum of Wildlife Art (NMWA) will open Transformations: Wildlife in Inuit Art and Culture on Saturday, October 21, 2023. Through cultural stories, Transformations seeks to explore Inuit history, values, and beliefs. The exhibit is comprised of works from the permanent collection as well as pieces on loan from private collections. The show will be on view through May 5, 2024.

This will be the first exhibition at the National Museum of Wildlife Art dedicated to Inuit art. “Inuit art typically includes wildlife as subject matter, which makes it a good fit for us,” says Curator of Art Tammi Hanawalt, PhD. “As referenced by the title, this exhibit also considers transformations. Human-animal transformation is a topic depicted in many of the Inuit sculptures we have in our permanent collection, and this topic also relates to the changes that Inuit people themselves were going through in the mid-20th century.” Many of the artworks in this exhibit represent animal-to-animal, or human-to-animal transformations. Most of these transformations refer to a spiritual metamorphosis performed by Inuit shamans.

According to Inuit beliefs, there was once a time when human and animal spirits shared the ability to transform at will and inhabit one another’s bodies. A human wishing to fly might acquire wings, whereas an animal could take on human body parts. Humans eventually lost their power to shapeshift, and everything related to spiritual communication and transformation was left to shamans. A shaman’s spirit was able to leave its human body and travel into the supernatural world with the help of otherworldly spirits—who often took the form of animals. Shamans could also embody these helper spirits by taking on their form in the human world, which served to protect and disguise them.

Although shamanism took on different meanings in Inuit culture during the second half of the 20th century, contemporary Inuit artists continue to draw on the idea of traditional shaman transformations to create clever, humorous, bizarre, and sometimes frightening human and animal figures in their artwork.

Historically, oral storytelling was significant to Inuit life. As in other cultures, Inuit traditions morphed to suit the changing needs of the people, and with change, some of the oldest stories were forgotten. Through visual narratives Inuit artists continue working to reclaim their collective voice and traditions. Many artists are exploring new and diverse ways to represent their experiences, while striving to preserve the histories of their communities. Some of the stories presented in this exhibition have long been a part of Inuit culture, while others are more recent and personal. Visitors are encouraged to look closely at the artwork and to see what stories they can find.

Transformations: Wildlife in Inuit Art and Culture is generously sponsored by Barbara Casey, Erika & Mick Cestia, Friends of Lisa Fleischman, Halloran Farkas Kittila, Berte Hirschfield, Dale & Jay Kaplan, Tally & Bill Mingst, Karen Rockey, Ellen & Peter Safir, Jade & David Walsh, and the Wyoming Arts Council.

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