The Hunter Artist: A new generation is redefining Inuit art, preserving northern traditions as it adapts to southern ways of life
July 5, 2012
A FEW MONTHS after my first visit to Cape Dorset, I had a dream. I was at a crowded gathering in the small Nunavut community on a brilliantly sunny day. But rather than one of the little one-storey prefab buildings scattered across the windswept rock, I was in an apartment building — a very high, somewhat rundown modernist tower with a south-facing view. The apartment was small and jammed with Inuit people, all having a good time. I was the only southern white person there, a recipient of their generosity, as I had so recently been in real life.
The view was extraordinary. Below us lay the entire topography of Hudson Bay, its familiar, lopsided udder shape inverted from its conventional southern orientation. The view was as if seen from the stratosphere, with the water stretching out like hammered silver, shining in the late-afternoon spring light. The bottom of the bay was cloaked in a blanket of clouds, and they, too, were lit up to a satin-sheened brilliance. I was bewitched by the beauty, startled by it, but around me everyone carried on carousing, oblivious. A group of young men were gathering on the balcony — too many, it seemed to me, to be supported by it. I was worried it would break, but as an outsider I was wary of offering advice.
When I awoke, my mood was ambivalent. I was moved by the radiance of what I had seen, but also anxious about the possible calamity. This, I quickly realized, had been the frame through which I had experienced Cape Dorset, a small town that has been the site of a unique intercultural experiment between the Inuit and the white worlds for more than half a century. I had been enchanted by the beauty and the culture of the place, but disturbed about what Inuit had endured, and how much they still stand to lose by adopting the structures and values of the white world. I have now made two visits there to learn about printmaking at the renowned Kinngait Studios, the jewel in the crown of northern artistic production, which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary three years ago. In particular, I wanted to meet Tim Pitsiulak, forty-five, a quiet, steady fixture in the community, one of its best hunters, and now one of its most promising artists. A nephew of the celebrated printmaker Kenojuak Ashevak, he leads a new generation of artists redefining Inuit art.
Artmaking in Cape Dorset has prehistoric roots, from nomadic Inuit who expressed their refined aesthetic sensibilities for millennia in tiny carvings, toggles, and amulets in bone and ivory — objects that connected them to the spiritual realm and to the animals they hunted — and in the striking textile appliqués with which the women adorned traditional clothing. These designs inspired adventurer James Houston to persuade the Canadian government to fund a pilot project in Cape Dorset in the 1950s, encouraging carving on a larger scale, and introducing Japanese-style printmaking to a people who were just beginning to move into fixed settlements. By 1960, Houston was moving on, the mantle of leadership was passed to Terry Ryan, and Kinngait was placed under the direction of the newly created West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, one of many such co-ops set up across the North under the direction of Inuit leaders.
For Inuit, the co-ops provided employment and hope, but Ottawa had its own reasons for encouraging permanent settlements. The Cold War had charged the Arctic politically, making it a buffer zone between Communism and democracy. Conscription of the nomadic Inuit into fixed communities enabled the federal government to assert the existence of an Indigenous population in the region, even if that citizenry was to be identified by tracking numbers. In the span of a few decades, the nomadic way of life was lost, and Canada’s claim on the North was secured.
Meanwhile, the country was looking to brand itself at home and abroad, and Inuit art became the iconography. Ookpiks and inukshuks were sold in airports and gift shops from coast to coast. Inuit prints graced our stamps; Kenojuak’s The Enchanted Owl, on the 1970 six-cent stamp, was embraced as a signifier of our identity as an emerging nation, with accents both primeval and modern. Inuit carvings served as the stuff of corporate ritual among Bay Street qallunaat, who swapped bulk-buy soapstone dancing bears and walruses at closing dinners…