Inuit Art History

Inuit, The People The word Eskimo is thought to be Native American Indian in origin meaning " eater of raw fish". It used to be the common term to refer to the people across the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Greenland. The term Inuit, meaning "The People", specifically referred to the people in Canada and Greenland who shared a common language, Inuktitut. With the exception of the Saami who inhabit northern Scandinavia, Inuit has now become the common and preferred term for all native people across the arctic.


Carving Throughout history, as a completely isolated and self-sufficient people, the Inuit have always carved, whether for utilitarian, decorative or religious purpose.Their nomadic lifestyle dictated that their possessions include only the bare necessities for survival. Artistic creativity was, therefore, basically restricted to the adornment of everyday objects such as tools and clothing, as well as the creation of carvings imbued with religious significance. Small in size, animal fetishes to bring good luck to the hunter and amulets to ward off evil spirits were often exquisitely carved and incised.

In the mid 1900's, the Inuit suddenly found themselves caught up in a rapidly changing way of life with their move to permanent settlements where housing, health services and schools were readily available. It was within the framework of a vanishing traditional way of life that the Canadian Inuit were encouraged, starting in the late 1940's, to create art to be sold through a network of cooperatives to a worldwide audience of art collectors. The immediate recognition of Inuit art as a unique statement resulted in a flourishing of artistic activity during the next decades and must now be considered an important art phenomenon.


Print Making The first catalogued collection of graphic art was produced in the Cape Dorset print studio in 1959. Since then, with the exception of the combined collection of 1964 and 1965, there have been annual Cape Dorset print releases, each documented with a fully illustrated catalog. In the 60’s, many Inuit still lived in camps and would make drawings there in their traditional environment. During the next visit to the trading post, the artists would present their finished work for sale in the hope of having one or more made into limited edition stonecuts, stencils, or engravings. Kananginak, Kenojuak, Lucy, Parr, Pitseolak, and Pudlo, now some of the most recognized names in Inuit graphic art, were part of the core group who produced the early prints. Today, most artists work in their homes in Cape Dorset and more recent printing techniques also include lithographs, etchings and aquatints. Although many of the early artists are now deceased, a new generation has emerged, also expressing their unique vision in strong compositions and compelling images.

In spite of the tremendous challenges involved in producing a body of work for a complete and varied collection, the Cape Dorset print shop became the model for other communities, including Baker Lake, Holman, Clyde River, Pangnirtung, and Puvirnituq. Through their artwork, the artists, in collaboration with the printers who interpret and transfer the drawings to paper, not only depict, but also document their culture in a direct, honest, and compelling way. In addition to being aesthetically appealing, Inuit works on paper offer invaluable documentation and insights into a culture that endured largely untouched until the middle of the 20th century.


Life on the Land Everyday domestic and hunting scenes captured in stone and on paper are not only nostalgic reminiscences of a vanishing way of life, but reveal a people with strength and pride. Compositions of figures, especially of mothers and children, reflect the importance of the close-knit Inuit family. The day-to-day struggle to survive and their endless patience are often depicted in their art, yet not infrequently a wonderful sense of joy and humor also comes bursting forth. Deeply rooted in a culture where keen observation of wildlife was essential to survival, it would seem only natural that wildlife should also figure prominently in the art of the Inuit. Elegant birds, majestic bears and playful seals and walrus are among their favorite themes with the artists skillfully capturing the form and "personality" of each animal. So far, their art has been mainly focused on life as it once was, and, despite dramatic changes, it still is, as the Inuit people embrace modern society while clinging to their past.


Mythology In traditional Inuit culture, a person, upon meeting a stranger, would ask "Are you a spirit or a human?" Drawing inspiration from their cultural heritage in which shamanism, spirits, myths and legends guided their existence, Inuit artists also depict intriguing and imaginative mythological creatures, often revealing their innermost feelings and beliefs. Spirits were thought to be everywhere and guided people’s existence through time immemorial. Every object, thing, and place – whether living or inanimate – possessed an inua, a soul. Sedna, the sea goddess, Sila, the weather spirit of the earth, Anirniq, the spirit of breath and soul, and Tuniq, the legendary giants, were some of the spirits who inhabited the Inuit world. Today, many artists still give expression to the old belief system, inspired by spirits and their intermediary, angakoq, the Inuit shaman. If hunting was poor or a person was ill, the Inuit depended on his magical skills to perform special rituals. With the help of his personal spirits and the rhythmic beat of his drum, angakoq would "travel" all the way to the moon or down to the bottom of the sea to appease Sedna in order to restore equilibrium and harmony. In two and three dimensions, Inuit artists today often depict drumming angakoqs, swimming sednas, and intriguing animal spirits – revealing a culture still rich in old legends, myths, and spiritualism.


Stone The stone most commonly used for carving throughout the Arctic is often described as soapstone or carvingstone. In reality, a wide variety of stone types is used, from the finely-grained or striated sedimentary rock typical of Sanikiluaq and Arctic Bay, to the beautiful volcanic rock or altered serpentine, in shades of green, found near Cape Dorset, Kimmirut and Iqaluit. The carvers use local stone and a number of artists take great pride in their personal and often secret stone quarries. In some cases major expeditions are carried out by a whole community, involving long trips over land or by sea to transport the stone after the arduous task of bringing it out from under the permafrost. Although some carvers are taking advantage of the new power tools, they still also use simple hand tools to shape their materials. With the help of axes and saws, the artists can easily shape the rough block of stone. A hammer and chisel will then be used to chip down the basic form. In order to obtain openwork and fine details, the carvers will turn to a variety of files, drills and needles. The use of sandpaper creates a smooth surface and a final polish of oil or wax gives the carving its beautiful luster.

Regional Styles Despite similarity of subject matter, each of the Inuit communities in the Hudson Bay region have developed unique styles of carving, reflecting not only local artistic tradition, but also the particular qualities of the stone available. The beautiful green stone of Cape Dorset and Kimmirut is shaped into graceful carvings that are smoothed and polished to best exhibit the beauty of the stone. By contrast, the more rough stone of Baker Lake and Arviat often results in powerful and more abstract works that exhibit a primitive directness. Grey or black soapstone carvings from Nunavik (formerly known as Arctic Quebec) are frequently quite elaborately carved and incised, as the artists are allowed greater flexibility in working with this particularly soft type of stone. Throughout the arctic, materials such as ivory, whalebone, and baleen are also used to create a variety of art objects.

Inuit graphic art has also developed distinctive styles giving each of the different print studios a unique "look". The beautiful and striking stonecuts of Cape Dorset are in stark contrast with the softer stencils from Pangnirtung and the bold and vibrant images from Baker Lake contrast with the smaller and more intimate works from Holman.

< home