Friday, March 18, 2016

Big Money

James Houston was the man who brought Inuit art to the world, retrieving throw-away carvings to be sold in Montreal, Ottawa, and New York back in the early 1950s.  Here is his story of how he taught Inuit people the economics of art and they taught him something else. 
(from page 276 of his book _Confessions of an Igloo Dweller:  Memories of the Old Arctic, Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston  1995 ISBN 0-395-78890-0)
While they understood the idea of barter or trade perfectly - these furs in exchange for these bullets and this kettle - helping Inuit understand the use of money was anything but simple at first.  Big Red Pedersen lent me a white fox pelt for a demonstration to the printmakers.  Next to the fur, I spread out its current value in Canadian dollars and coins then explained denominations under the watchful eyes of hunters.  I began by changing a blue five-dollar bill into five green one-dollar bills and so on.

"Only paper," they would sigh.

Paper had always been fragile and useless in their lives except to wrap a cigarette and burn it.  To dispel that thought I displayed one of their prints, a stone block or stencil, printed on paper, then laid out beside it all the various dollars it would gain.

"Bigger money can be made from printmaking than from trapping foxes," I stressed.
After one of these heand-spinningly clever monetary discussions of mine I slid home and slept as soundly as Disraeli must have slept after purchasing the Suez Canal for the British government on the strength of his financial prowess. 

Early next moring, when I went into the senlavik, print shop, I discovered on the drying line the printmakers' idea of what I had meant in my demonstration.  Hanging between two clothes pegs was a huge, chest-wide, stencilled print of a green dollar bill - the monarch's head in the center and a "one" on all four corners.  That's big money, I thought!

Perhaps the whole idea of printmaking was coming through to them.  Or was that marvelously naive piece of Inuit folk art just one of the better jokes they played on me?

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