GNAF receives ‘fascinating basement find’

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The Great Northern Arts Festival Society (GNAFS) received a donation of 72 traditional Inuit carvings from Cheri Tate, granddaughter of Harold Harshaw – a man who worked for the Department of Northern Affairs for 30 years.

Tony Devlin, chair of the GNAFS Board of Directors, is calling the collection of soapstone, serpentine, ivory and bone carvings a “fascinating basement find.” The collection consists mostly of wildlife carvings and some family scenes. Most are in good shape, but some are broken or scratched.

Tony Devlin is in the process of documenting all 72 carvings.
Samantha McKay/NNSL photo

Tate approached the Town of Inuvik with her grandfather’s collection six months ago, who referred her to GNAFS. Devlin and GNAFS executive director Marry Ann Ross received the collection last week.

“We started unpacking them, and we recognized very quickly that the style was very obviously from the ’40s or ’50s, a very old style, a very Eastern style. A lot of these seem to be from the Nunavut and Baffin Island area,” said Devlin. “What we’re finding really fascinating is that most of them came with their government tags and E numbers.”

In the 1940s, the Government of Canada assigned “E numbers” to Inuit individuals as a way to identify and track Northerners.

Devlin said these numbers may make it easier for GNAFS to find more information about the collection as they move into documenting and researching the pieces.

Cheri Tate, granddaughter of Harold Harshaw — a man who worked for the Department of Northern Affairs for 30 years — donated the carvings to the Great Northern Arts Festival Society.
Samantha McKay/NNSL photo

Once the pieces are documented, digitized and researched, Devlin said GNAFS may consider getting some of the broken pieces restored or repaired. Their main priority right now is to try to find out what artists made the pieces.

“You’re not finding a lot of these found sets too often. Sometimes someone will pull out one old carving, but to find 72 at once is pretty exciting,” he said. “What’s really exciting for us is that you don’t often see a complete collection coming around, and certainly not one that hits on an era that is pre-art world interest in Inuit art.”

Devlin said GNAFS is excited to share the collection, perhaps at next summer’s Great Northern Arts Festival and as a travelling exhibit in Canadian galleries and museums – but nothing is set in stone yet.

“I’d like to think of us as a stop on the path of where these pieces will end up. It might be Inuvik, but if this is as prominent of a collection as we hope it might be, we’d like to see it in the wider world. We’re very grateful to have access to this collection and we can’t wait to share this,” he said. “You don’t get to see this kind of thing everyday, it’s really cool.”