Cape Dorset, Canada – A bleak, rocky shore 2,200 kilometres (1,360 miles) north of Canada’s capital, Ottawa, seems an unlikely place for a community of groundbreaking artists. There are no lush landscapes to paint. Colours are few – the indigo of deep seawater, the faded hues of homes, vehicles and clothing.
But this place, the hamlet of Cape Dorset, Nunavut, has produced some of the world’s best Inuit artists for nearly 55 years. They draw and sculpt seals, polar bears, killer whales and walruses. Their art includes spirits dancing through the aurora borealis and mythical beings swirling around people.
Birds grow legs and walk. The feathers of owls and geese flow in all directions. A frog is depicted with the head and hands of a man, but the soul of a monster.
For nearly 60 years, dozens of people have made a living from producing such work. “Inuit art was always modern,” says Bill Ritchie, who manages Kinngait Studio, part of the West Baffin Island Eskimo Co-op. “When you see this work hanging on a wall, it’s not what you expect. It’s new, provocative, edgy and often joyful.”
Founded in 1959, the co-op buys Inuit sculptures and drawings in pencil, ink or crayon. Skilled printmakers work with the artists to turn sketches into lithographs or stone-cuts. Limited numbers – usually 50 – of each work are printed and sent south each autumn to be shown and sold across North America.
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“It’s all about support for the artist,” says Ritchie, “keeping quality and standards high and making sure they get the best prices for their work. It’s a very positive experience for them.”
Kinngait’s studios are housed in a few rustic clapboard buildings on a dirt road behind Cape Dorset’s harbour. Inside is an analogue delight – a collection of old printing presses, some with racks of venerable metal type. There’s the distinctive smell of printer’s ink, and racks holding brushes and other typesetter’s tools hang on the walls.
At the back is a warm, well-lit room where artists are welcome to come and work. Bill Ritchie calls it “the drawing room”. This is where Shuvinai Ashoona can be found most days, hunched over a big white draftsmen’s table with coloured pencils fanned out around her. Ashoona is considered one of Cape Dorset’s most cutting-edge artists. Her drawings can shock viewers with images of women giving birth to monsters, domestic life superimposed on myth and tropical fish, adrift.
Jutai Toonoo, another artist known for his provocative work, works alongside her. He was once a sculptor, but he lost two fingers in an accident and began drawing. Making art, he says, is “a crazy form of healing, a way of putting on paper all the feelings that I have and don’t want to indulge physically”.
Toonoo’s current work is based on a photograph that he took on his cell phone. It shows a crust of new-fallen snow atop a wilting wildflower, a tiny tableaux of seasonal change.
Here in the Arctic, he says, you have to look closely at the land to find something to draw. “There are no trees here. But there are plants that look like trees,” Jutai explains, gesturing at the photograph inspiring his work. “When you look really close, sometimes there’s a forest of plants, tiny plants. And that’s what I like to draw. Today, anyway.”
In the next room, Pitaloosie Saila is signing a stack of 50 prints of her latest work: a colourful pair of fish, one atop the other. Speaking in her native tongue, Inuktitut, she’s sharing a recipe for what she calls “Eskimo jam”, a mixture of fish eggs and wild berries.
Born in 1942, Saila is a venerated elder in her community and proud of her art. “Just to know that others are seeing your work, that it’s hanging in rooms down south and making people happy – that’s important,” she says. Pitaloosie says Kinngait Studio has been a wonderful thing for the artists of Cape Dorset. “Otherwise, how would people know what we do, how we live?”
Just to know that others are seeing your work, that it's hanging in rooms down south and making people happy - that's important.
Not every artist considers art their full-time job, even though they’re often well-paid for it. Tim Pitsiulak, whose work hangs in bank boardrooms and adorns a 25-cent Canadian coin, says he’s a hunter at heart. “Look at this picture: Here’s the walrus I got last week”, he says, pointing at a computer screen. “And this is my son, he’s 19 and he’s shot his first walrus.”
Pitsiulak often draws the animals that the Inuit have traditionally hunted – whales, seals, caribou and, of course, walrus. Occasionally, he combines their features or puts human clothing on them.
“I also like to draw from legends,” he says, pointing at a print of a creature that’s half-frog, half-human. “That one is a sea monster that lives under the ice and drags people into the ocean. That was fun to draw.”
Pitsiulak is considered one of the younger generations of Cape Dorset artists and has spent a lot of time on tours in southern Canada, explaining his work to critics, gallery crowds and art students.
This year’s annual offering from Cape Dorset features 32 prints from 11 artists. Seven of them are the work of the late Kenojuak Ashevak.
Described by critics as the “most renowned of all Inuit artists, and a Canadian national treasure”, Ashevak died in 2013 at age 87. Her body of work is vast and includes sculptures, paintings and prints. Last May, the first Cape Dorset collection ever offered for sale, from 1959, sold for record prices at auction in Toronto.
“One striking thing about the younger artists,” says studio manager Bill Ritchie, “is that they’re bilingual and they can speak for themselves in English. Older artists spoke Inuktitut only. That opens a whole new world to the younger ones.”