Review: Combs of our Ancestors

Dovecot Studio. September 2010.


Combs  of our Ancestors is a one tapestry exhibition showcasing the result of a collaboration between Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok and Baffin Island based Pangnirtung Tapestry Studio.

The tapestry itself features three Inuit combs, rendered cartoonish in vivid oranges and browns. The featured combs are based directly upon museum pieces which would fit in the palm of your hand, so the 7.5 x 5 foot tapestry gives the combs an almost monstrous appearance, amplified by the simplicity of the tapestry as opposed to the delicacy and intricacy of the original combs.

The piece certainly has a striking presence in Dovecot’s smallest exhibition space, but it is the ‘working walls’ which make up the rest of the exhibition that really inform the viewer of the purpose and thought behind the collaboration. The viewer is presented with a series of photographs showing the work in progress, and plenty of written information. Here, we find out about the original combs and are candidly informed that their actual origin is a bit hazy: at points in the exhibition they are described as being from the Thule, ancestors of the Inuits, but we are also told that some experts have suggested they may actually be from the 18th century. This extra information is somewhat confusing. Although it doesn’t detract from the idea of an ancestral object being represented through traditional means for a modern audience, the uncertainty does make the viewer question whether this exhibition is about Inuit history, or simply representing an aesthetically pleasing if historically enigmatic artefact. This uncertainty seems to have more significance to the story of the combs – which is a crucial part of what the exhibition says it is about – than it is credited with, and could have been an interesting addition to the exhibition, rather than a somewhat offhand comment.

As beautifully crafted as the tapestry is, there is a feeling throughout the exhibition that something is missing: the combs themselves. It would have been illuminating to be able to see the original pieces that the tapestry is based on. Being museum pieces, it is understandable that they are not physically present, but the exhibition could have gained some extra depth had a photograph of the combs at least been included in the working walls.

Combs of our Ancestors certainly has some very interesting ideas and aims. Although these are explored to a certain degree in the writing that accompanies the tapestry, it is a shame that there is not more visual representation of the exhibition’s themes. Overall, we are left with a feeling of potential unfulfilled.

Originally published in The Student.


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