SOME VISITORS stop in shock at the entrance to the exhibition of modern Inuit art now at the Canadian Embassy. The sculptures are that powerful, and the presentation is that dramatic.
The eye quickly accepts the objects, because everyone has seen at least a few Inuit -- or "Eskimo" -- carvings and weavings. But the mind boggles, because nothing has prepared us for the genius that radiates from almost every one of the scores of masterpieces.
More shocks are in store. Although they explore ancient themes and timeless traditional images, all these works have been produced since 1948, when Canada and the Hudson Bay Company began an arts project as a way to provide economic opportunity to the isolated and impecunious Inuit. And the 75 master artists represented in the exhibition come from a culture comprising only 25,000 men, women and children, surely the highest concentration of first-class artistic talent on earth.
Most of the sculptors live and work in remote villages of fewer than a thousand inhabitants, dotted over the top of the world in the circumpolar regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Siberia. All work within a common heritage and use much the same materials -- mainly soapstone, walrus ivory, whalebone, baleen, caribou antlers and driftwood -- yet their creations are as individual as those of Rodin or Picasso.
In their hands these difficult substances flow and mold as fluidly as clay, becoming with apparently equal ease precise renderings of animals intimately known or swirling abstract evocations of the spirit world.
"From Our Lands -- Tuk Tuk" by Shorty Killiktee, of Lake Harbour in Canada's Northwest Territories, is a magnificent rendering of a caribou in polished soapstone. His "Shaman Becomes Caribou" is a dream figure so delicate the stone might be curling smoke; his "Bird/Bird" seems as Egyptian and Mayan as it does Inuit. There is much that is elemental, but nothing "primitive" in the work of Shorty and the other Inuit men and women represented here (first names are preferred among the Inuit, even in formal usage).
To describe the "highlights" of the show would be to catalogue it. Virtually every piece is outstanding, and many of them could stand beside any sculpture on earth. And yet this show contains only part of the collection, which has been touring the world in sections for several years.
While the mounting of the embassy exhibit is magnificent, the visitor is told virtually nothing about the artists or the traditions and myths represented in the works. The labels list only the artist's name (if known), his or her home village, the material used and the dimensions of the object. An interactive video screen in one corner tells little more, even when it works.
This lack of context is extremely frustrating, yet it does have the benefit of forcing visitors to look at the works by and for themselves. There are, for instance, more than a dozen renderings of polar bears, each very different yet all essentially alike, and from them one absorbs a sense not only of the beauty, grace and power of the great bear, but of its spirit, and of the respect and -- yes -- affection the Inuit have for this god/animal.
Many of the artists regard themselves primarily as hunters and fishermen, living much as the Inuit ("the people") have done for thousands of years. In recent times, of course, their way of life has been shattered by the intrusions of "civilization" with its rifles, snowmobiles, whiskey, television and Twinkies. Ironically, the money they get for their art has enabled some of these artists to return to the old ways, at least part time. David Ruben Piqtoukun, one of the most inventive and exuberant of the Inuit artists, commutes between Toronto and his native Paulatuk in the Northwest Territories.
But almost none of such background information is given, or even suggested, in the exhibition or in the accompanying brochure and catalogue. It is particularly odd in light of the fact that the stated purpose of the exhibit is to promote cultural preservation, environmental awareness and international cooperation.
But it's a fabulous art show.