For over seven decades, Inuit artists have been giving form to their ways of knowing and being in an art unlike that created anywhere else in the world. Unique conditions - an unforgiving climate, rapid social and environmental change, and an exceptionally concentrated artistic milieu - have kindled the work of artists who continue to stoke a growing market with their innovative treatment of subject matter and form.
Today’s robust international trade in Inuit art finds its origins in exquisitely designed utilitarian objects. Objects such as cutlery, bowls, lamps, combs, needles and harpoon heads were created most often out of soapstone (steatite) and ivory, and some were decorated with elaborate patterns and imagery. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Inuit carvers began to create pieces to trade with whalers who were sailing into the North. These “trade sculptures,” whose purpose was no longer strictly functional but, rather, aesthetic and recreational, often took the form of small representations of local fauna. Cribbage boards made from walrus ivory were also popular. The ability to masterfully handle local material and an acute awareness of and respect for the surrounding environment permeate these early pieces and continue to inform modern masterworks of sculpture, print, drawing and textile.
Inuit art as we recognize it today originated in the late 1940s, though it continued to pay homage to these earlier works. Southern Canadian artist James Houston, then the Northern representative of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, visited the Arctic for the first time in 1947, and continued to act as an intermediary between the North and the South throughout his career. With the support of the Hudson's Bay Company, the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, and the Department of Mines and Resources, Houston established the “Eskimo Project” in 1949. Originally envisioned strictly as a revenue-generating enterprise, the concept of “souvenirs” and “handicrafts” that were to be created in order to sell in the South was quickly supplanted by an explosion of creativity, resulting in original, high-quality art objects that have enchanted buyers ever since they were first introduced onto the market.
Though the Project saw its genesis with carving, the year 1957 marked the introduction of another medium that would take the art world by storm. Linocut prints on paper and fabric, as well as stencil and relief carvings, were initially undertaken by a handful of renowned first-generation artists. A selection of these early prints was presented in the fall of 1958 in Winnipeg, and their popularity encouraged Houston to continue to research and disseminate printmaking methods in the North. After spending the winter of 1958-1959 studying printmaking in Japan, he came back equipped with materials and techniques that artists could then digest, adapt, and build upon. This instance of cross-cultural diffusion was nourished by enormous creativity, lending these prints a distinctly modernist, cosmopolitan flair. Its success was firmly established with the first annual release of the Cape Dorset Print Collection in 1959.
The development of a co-operative system in the Arctic in the late 1950s brought with it such benefits as the provision of materials, facilitation of sales, and, crucially, mentorship and collaboration. Co-operatives have been established in numerous communities across the North, the largest being in Kinngait (Cape Dorset). Generally, a print will include a small symbol indicating the co-operative in which it was created.
Kinngait artists are often associated with one of four generations, though some families have had members involved with the co-operative across all four. The earlier generations had a more traditional relationship to the land, having spent less time in settled communities, a sensibility that is readily apparent in the subject matter of their work. The work of later generations is often informed by relatively recent changes, such as the advent of connective technologies - TV, radio and Internet - in the North.
However, these are not the only changes facing the Canadian Arctic. The North is at particular risk due to climate change, with rising temperatures changing the environment on which humans and animals alike rely. Pollution is also a problem; pollutants such as microplastics are able to hitch rides on subsurface currents, ending up at both poles. Now, more than ever before, the world’s eyes are trained on this sensitive ecosystem. Artistic documentation of these changes has never before seemed so prescient.
The Arctic is among the harshest environments on earth. A keen visual-spatial sense and a finely attuned understanding of the rhythms of nature - the change of seasons, the ebb and flow of tides, the migratory patterns of land, sky, and sea-dwelling animals - have always and continue to be paramount in ensuring survival. These enduring skills translate to an art that doesn’t just imitate life, but documents it with precision and finesse. They are palpable across generations and across mediums. The sheer ingenuity of replicating the feathery brush of an owl’s wing with the skillful cut of a honeycomb-textured whalebone. The shudder and quake of the aurora borealis in a series of flickering stitches. The elegant stoicism of a dominant caribou, whose sinew and muscle are translated into taut, potent lines.
At Waddington’s, we are proud to act as a link between enthusiasts in the South and artists in the North. Our role as a “gathering place” for lovers of Inuit art to learn and share stories about these remarkable works, which have amassed a passionate following all over the world, is one that we have held for over four decades. We invite you to join us.
The majority of Canada's Inuit population lives in 51 communities spread across the Inuvialuit Settlement Region (Northwest Territories), Nunavut, Nunavik (Northern Quebec), and Nunatsiavut (Northern Labrador). These regions in Canada, collectively known as Inuit Nunangat, encompass 35% of Canada’s landmass and 50% of its coastline, including land, water, and ice.
Following the signing of the Nunavut Agreement in 1999, many communities began to officially reclaim their original Inuit names.
This map of Inuit regions reflects Statistics Canada data‚ geographic reference date (January 1, 2006).
An Interactive Timeline of Inuit Art
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