Alumni couple lends Inuit artwork for exhibition

"Shaman Returns from the Moon" by David Ruben Piktouken, 1995.
"Shaman Returns from the Moon" by David Ruben Piktouken, 1995.

A University of California, Davis, alumni couple has loaned a collection of artworks by aboriginal people of the Arctic for an exhibition at the university. “Listening to the Stone: Original Inuit Art,” opening at the C.N. Gorman Museum Jan. 6, is made up of about 50 carvings and a dozen works on paper collected by Jürg and Christel Bieri. Most are being shown publicly for the first time.

“The Bieris have been very generous in sharing this wonderful artwork with the museum, the university and the community,” said Veronica Passalacqua, Gorman Museum curator. “This is also an important exhibition because it marks the first time the museum has shown Inuit art.”

The Bieris, who live in the Bay Area, attended UC Davis in the 1960s. Christel Bieri received a master’s degree in English and American literature, and Jürg Bieri earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics. Both continued their studies at UC Berkeley, where Jürg Bieri earned a doctorate. They founded the solar energy manufacturing company Heliodyne in the 1970s. “We have been collecting Inuit carvings and graphics for several decades and are witnessing through this work how the artists deal with the tremendous changes from a hunting society to communal village life,” said Christel Bieri. “The expressiveness and vivid imagination drew us to the artwork. The closeness to nature and the animals that they depended on for their survival is given very direct expression in their art. Living with the art deepens our understanding of a culture very different from our own and confirms our own preference for closeness to nature.”

Many of the artworks depict polar bears, walruses and other animals of the regions. Others blend human and animal characteristics reflecting the spiritual beliefs of the Inuit. Some show daily life scenes such as hunting and fishing. A few pieces are abstract. The art was made between the 1960s and today of stone and bone, with the works on paper including a variety of prints.

Most of the artists are from the Nunavut territory, located in north-central Canada. The newest and largest territory or province, Nunavut is the size of Europe but has only 30,000 inhabitants, about 80 percent who are Inuit.

“For us, a collection is an organic event, it just happens without any prior decision,” Christel Bieri said. “It is more like a discovery of each piece, which gets added and after a while it becomes a collection. Interest in the arts and cultures has been a lifelong occupation by both of us. We are glad to contribute to the diversity of shows at UC Davis for the enjoyment and education of students and the public.”

The exhibition, running through June 11, formally opens with a public reception Jan. 14 from 4 to 6 p.m. The museum, located in Hart Hall, is open noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. The museum may be contacted at (530) 752-6567 or   

A catalog for the exhibition will be available for purchase at the museum.

Exhibition is part of symposium in March

The exhibition is part of the symposium “Arctic Indigeneities, Media, and Social Justice” organized by the Native American studies department, taking place March 13 and 14. The symposium will bring together scholars, artists and activists and include performances by Inuit vocalist Tanya Tagaq at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

Media Resources

Jeffrey Day, Arts, humanities and social sciences, 530-219-8258,

Virginia Passalacqua, Gorman Museum,

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