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Musee du Quay Branly Opens a Window onto the Different Eskimo and Inuit Cultures
Foetus from a shaman's tomb. Walrus ivory 6.3 x 2.8 x 1.9 cm. Rock Foundation, New York.

PARIS.- The “Upside Down”, The Arctic Peoples exhibition offers visitors an unprecedented experience: the chance to explore, for the first time in Europe, the full range of Eskimo and Inuit arts, with the emphasis on a journey around the icecap, from Siberia to Alaska, with the Ekven, Dorset and Yup’ik civilisations, among others, as our points of reference.

The modern-day indigenous peoples of the Arctic region, widely known as Eskimos, do not belong to a uniform culture. They are in fact constituted of different groupings with diverse heritages populating the vast regions of Arctic lands and southern Arctic. However, they in general belong to one of the following ancestral branches: the Yupiget of Siberia, the Yupiit (plural of Yup’ik) of southern Alaska, the Inupiat of northern Alaska and the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland.

The exhibition brings together around 500 of the most important pieces from ancient Eskimo and Inuit culture, giving visitors an exceptional overview of the various Eskimo and Inuit cultures and Arctic landscapes. Visitors are for instance invited to explore works from Ekven culture, pieces from the Bering Sea and around a hundred Ipiutak objects.

The exhibited masks (1850-1920) are works created by the Yupiit, who live in the regions near the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers in Alaska. These direct descendants of old Bering Sea cultures are a living illustration of 2000 years of unbroken ancestry. However, experts believe that the creation and ritual use of these masks belongs to an ancient tradition.

A first encounter with the Yup’ik masks may leave the visitor feeling stunned by their sheer number, variety and power of illustration. Differing in size and in form, they range from "small frontal masks" measuring around ten centimetres in diameter to gigantic constructions weighing up to ten kilos, which no dancer could wear without the aid of a handle. The Yupiit, famous for their tolerance of numerous conceptions of the world, freely accepted the individual variations made by the mask makers and the angalkut (shaman) who directed them. The sculptors were thus able to make masks depicting insects, berries, wood, ice and a whole range of everyday creatures.

Some masks illustrated an angalkuq journey to the bottom of the sea or into the skies, and included additional figures representing the creatures encountered by the shaman. The masks were believed to possess the capacity to bring the dancers into contact with the spirits depicted on them. The simplest and most realistic mask may symbolise a complex spiritual experience or progression. Paul John (who died in February 1994), was a native of this region and confirmed this analysis when describing the face masks, which he witnessed in use on the Island of Nelson in his childhood, as a “request to the animals to make themselves available” to people.

This is why people perform Agayuyaraq (the manner or fact of praying or making a request): in order to interact with animal sprits and to influence other beings in the natural world to bring good hunting for the coming year.

In the past, a ceremonial mask was for a very long time called an agayu. Before priests introduced Christianity, people told stories mentioning Agayuyaraq. When they wore a mask, it meant that they were praying.

Not many masks have “survived”, because of the fragile materials with which they are made (feathers, wood, etc.) and the custom according to which masks were hung from trees after use.

Having been invited by Edmund Carpenter and the Musée du Quai Branly to create the visual and sensory context needed to understand the Eskimo and Inuit peoples’ everyday world, the visual artist Doug Wheeler sets out an “Arctic environment” inside the exhibition. He has chosen to replicate the sensory impact which the Arctic landscape can have on the visitor.

Doug Wheeler, a scenic architect, uses light and space to recreate the light, darkness and extreme vastness of the Arctic in his film projections, shadow effects and variations in temperature in order to disorientate visitors and thus create a state of total receptiveness to the exhibited objects.

The exhibition therefore has a minimalist aesthetic character, with no distinction between the floor, the ceiling and the walls: a spatial context in which the exhibits are the only things that can be seen.

It is therefore as part of a luminous environment and an artistic experience that visitors have the opportunity to experience an expedition to the Siberian Arctic.

The exhibition is designed to be a highly sensory experience, on a visual and aural level. It is an invitation to vanish on to the ice floes, in the heart of Paris. To this end, you enter the exhibition by means of a “box”, an antechamber leading to the Arctic universe, which, without exposing visitors to polar temperatures, transports them immediately into a spotless, icy “Arctic” space. Lighting and sound play a fundamental role in the itinerary of an exhibition designed as an installation. Visitors are immersed in a white space where they can hear the sound of the snow which crunches underfoot and the glacial wind which blows across the ice floes. The installation design, by Jean de Gastines, uses the curves of Jean Nouvel’s gallery to recreate a journey through the white landscapes of the North Pole.

The curator and the artistic director have made the decision not to give visitors any comments as they pass through the “Upside Down”, The Arctic Peoples exhibition. They are given a free leaflet, representing a map of their journey through the Arctic space. This mini-guide serves as sustenance for this adventure on the ice floes.

The Arctic space
As soon as visitors enter the exhibition, they step into a spotless room, identified as an “Arctic space” which is designed to “condition” them for their visit. It is a large, semiexperimental space, made up of two 36m² semicircles, which conveys to visitors the visual impression of polar cold. A Plexiglas passage takes visitors through this Arctic space with interior walls made entirely of ice.

The welcome dance
A second space, as dark as the Arctic space is white, creates the conditions for an encounter between the public and a Yup'ik dancer. A particularly realistic holographic procedure makes it possible for visitors to witness a life-size welcome dance.

“Upside Down”
After this welcome dance, the adventuring visitors are invited to follow a transparent path: they walk on a Plexiglas pathway covering small Eskimo and Inuit objects "buried" in the ice.

After stepping off this ice floe-slope, visitors arrive in the main exhibition space: all exhibits and sections of the itinerary are visible, with no interior wall or obstacle interfering with this line of sight. A very powerful visual impression is created: visitors to “Upside Down” are aware of a stark contrast.

This sequence, which provides the exhibition with its title, features a large high ceiling and completely white space, with light gradually fading into the background to illustrate the gradual change from day to night. This Arctic ambiance leads visitors into a series of spaces – moving from light to dark – which brings together various small objects from a number of cultures, including the Dorset culture. The lighting, positioned in the floor in the whole exhibition, varies from immaculate whiteness to starry darkness.

The Dorset culture (1000 BC-1400 AD) is one among several Arctic civilisations. This culture is associated with a population descended from the peoples who left Siberia to migrate to the Canadian Arctic (in around 2500 BC) and who seem to have disappeared from the region after the migration to the region of old Bering Sea tribes (in around 1000 AD).

Unlike the old Bering Sea cultures, the Dorset were not capable whale hunters, did not have arches or bows and did not use dog sleds for transport. Although they occupied vast territories and may have had contact with the first Scandinavian colonisers of Greenland, the Dorset were undoubtedly very isolated from other cultures, and prospered in the coldest regions. The disappearance of the Dorset culture coincided with changes in the climate in around 800-1000AD. The Dorset culture made miniscule sculptures featuring human figures and with clear shamanic functions. This particular form of art appears to have blossomed mainly in the second half of the Dorset era.

The different Arctic cultures
As the polar night advances little by little into the exhibition, visitors are invited to follow two pathways and two interlinked itineraries, exploring artworks from three Arctic cultures: 153 Ekven exhibits, 120 works from the Bering Sea and around one hundred Ipiutak objects.

Ekven is the name of a village in Chukotka, near to the eastern tip of Siberia. The underground houses and tombs at this site, where archaeological digs have taken place since the 1960s, bear witness to the unbroken occupation of the site by whale hunting cultures for 3000 years. Most of the objects discovered there are contemporary of the old Bering Sea, Saint Lawrence Island and Alaskan cultures.

The digs at the Ekven site are especially vital because the sea, which is dangerously close, encroaches a little further into the territory every day. This situation recalls the contemporary issues raised by the exhibition. Climate change is making these Arctic regions fragile and is making this cultural heritage even more precious.

As part of this exhibition, the old Bering Sea culture (200 BC-1600 AD) refers to the Paleo-Eskimo artefacts discovered on Saint Lawrence Island and other sites between the modern-day Alaskan coast (in the east) and Chukchi, Siberia (in the west).

The old Bering Sea cultures developed in the regions neighbouring Siberia and Alaska, as demonstrated by the major archaeological sites discovered along these two coasts. These cultures, widely referred to as the Thule, eventually migrated from the northern Canadian Arctic to Greenland, thus supplanting the older Dorset culture which had inhabited these eastern regions. The Thule tradition is also characterised by its cultural practice of hunting large marine mammals (whales, walruses and seals), a practice shared by preceding old Bering Sea cultures.

Modern Inuit and Yupiit are all descendants of the Thule. It would appear that the Thule had contact with the Scandinavian colonisers of Greenland, with whom they bartered to exchange metals. It is thought that illnesses contracted through contact with Europeans caused their deaths.

Continuing this remarkable exploration of the arts of the Arctic peoples, around one hundred Ipiutak objects are exhibited in this section.

Ipiutak is the name of an Eskimo site near Point Hope, Alaska, where in the late 1930s a plot of over 60 houses and a cemetery were discovered. The site, which is evidence of the continual occupation of the region by old Bering Sea cultures for several centuries, lends its name to the culture discovered there. The Ipiutak culture corresponds to the period immediately preceding the old Bering Sea cultures, which explains why a number of Ipiutak objects bear stylistic motifs inspired by Asiatic traditions and therefore appear to have more in common with Siberian and Asiatic cultures.

In this section of the exhibition, the objects are exhibited in 130cm Plexiglas cases and an Inuit voice immerses visitors in the sonar ambiance of the Arctic.

In a large open, curved exhibition space, each culture is presented individually and its pieces thematically.

Visitors move from an oval faceted space, with a melted igloo in the centre and transparent display cases around the outer edges, to a space delimited by laser cut metal – inspired by an Enooesweetok design which represents a series of men on their sleds. These different approaches to Arctic culture and objects ends with a birds-eye view of a landscape.

Dorset projection
Visitors are then greeted by Yup'ik masks. Two are real; the others can be viewed by means a holographic projection showing the masks in actual size. The projected images continually change, from one mask to another, just as the masks themselves change at the same time. They often take on the appearance of hybrid creatures: half walrus, half caribou. Some animals are depicted with figures of hunters sitting astride them. Others are shamanic beings, or spiritguides, which control the winds. By sticking very closely to the nature of these masks, the film serves as an extension of Yup’ik reality, in which changing manifestations of the spirit world and the real world combine and multiply.

While the film was being made, Chuna McIntyre, a member of the Yup’ik community, was consulted about the possibility of filming one of the masks from inside, to suggest the idea of a journey through the mask: “... It is perfectly valid to see the masks in this way. The masks were made with the intention of asking the spirits to enter them. That is why there are always openings: tiny holes are often bored into the mask in a number of places, with the sole aim of allowing the spirits to enter and escape. A spirit would never enter a mask where it could become trapped.”

Yup’ik masks
On the way back to the exhibition exit, visitors will be able to explore a selection of Yup'ik masks hung on the wall separating the “Upside Down”, The Arctic Peoples and Mingei Spirit in Japan exhibitions. The system of display cases brings them into focus through a series of windows, as if they were strange silhouettes emerging from the darkness, and the exhibition ends with the discovery of a pair of apparently reflected Yup’ik masks. They are presented as a pair, as some experts believe is traditional.

Before returning to the museum entrance hall, visitors can take away a plaster figurine, a reproduction of a piece from the exhibition, provided for them in a dispenser. Copies of the catalogue are freely available for visitors to consult, in order to answer the questions raised by an itinerary which is not signposted with traditional information cards.

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