Inuit: Land of Arctic Ice

Contemporary Inuit Artists

By Imago Mundi

Catalogue of the Imago Mundi Collection: Land of Arctic Ice (2017) by Contemporary Inuit ArtistsImago Mundi

A Context for Inuit Art

To exhibit Inuit art in Europe without contextualizing it would do it a great disservice. The history of Inuit art from the contemporary period is also the history of a people going towards self-sufficiency and nationhood. Even though the Inuit culture has been in existence for thousands of years, the Inuit art that most people are familiar with, came into existence only in the late 1940s. The early Arctic explorers trying to find the Northwest Passage, were followed by whalers from New England and Scotland, who had come to exploit the bowhead whales for fashion and fuel, and later government administrators. So the Inuit people had a long period of contact before the contemporary period. The arrival of these outsiders heralded the disruption of the nomadic existence of Inuit people, who were settled into dispersed communities across the vast expanse of the Canadian Arctic. The severe famine in the District of Keewatin (now Kivalliq) in the late 1950s, brought an influx of Inuit to Baker Lake.

Tim Pitsiulak - Bull Walrus, Tim Pitsiulak, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Tim Pitsiulak - Bull Walrus (2015)

This resettlement or colonial period, together with the forced introduction to education, had a profound and damaging effect on the Inuit, which they are still trying to overcome. Life in the communities and the increased reliance on “western” foods and products, changed the traditional economy to a wage economy. Art making in the Canadian Arctic, unlike the rest of the world, was instigated by the Government of Canada through the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources. The motivation was economic as opposed to any need expressed by the Inuit to produce arts and crafts (Goetz, 1985: p. 43). In a culture used to making things for survival, art making was a logical progression to being able to earn a living through arts and crafts. And people appeared to have a natural propensity for working with stone. Northern Affairs promoted the establishment of co-operative organizations, which it felt would fit well with the cooperative nature of Inuit societies (Blodgett, 1991: p. 15). Although the government intervened financially with the economy of the north, it never intended to do so forever. “Once the [arts and crafts] development projects became viable, the Department assumed that the Co-operatives would take over and [the government] would withdraw” (Goetz, 1985: p. 47). The goal was eventual Inuit self-sufficiency.

Alice Akamak - Beaded Doll, Alice Akamak, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Alice Akamak - Beaded Doll (2015)

The 1950s to 1970s was the high point of the government’s involvement. Arts and Crafts officers were recruited to go to Cape Dorset, Baker Lake and Pangnirtung (in what is now Nunavut), Holman Island (now Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories) and Povungnituk in northern Quebec (now Nunavik), to set up printmaking co-operatives. Today, only the Kinngait Studios at the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative Limited in Cape Dorset is producing annual collections of prints. The longevity of production and quality of Cape Dorset prints were due to the effort and vision of Terry Ryan, who had come to Cape Dorset to work at the Co-operative as a young art student. An Arts and Crafts Development officer’s terms of reference included: “To help provide material, financial, and technical assistance to the Inuit (Eskimo) artists and crafts people, to encourage them to draw on their material culture, and the materials indigenous to the land”. (Crassweller, n.d.: p. 4). James Houston, who is credited with bringing the world’s attention to Inuit art, was responsible for the first Inuit art sale and show in southern Canada held at the Canadian Guild of Crafts in Montreal (QC) in 1939. He also introduced the Japanese method of print production to Cape Dorset (with a northern flavor, using stone instead of wood) when he was a federal service officer in Cape Dorset in 1954.

Helen Iguptak - Needle Booklet, Helen Iguptak, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Helen Iguptak - Needle Booklet (2015)

Kudluajuk Ashoona - Hanging Out, Kudluajuk Ashoona, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Kudluajuk Ashoona - Hanging Out (2015)

In addition to printmaking, Arts and Crafts officers introduced other art techniques. In Rankin Inlet, Claude Grenier started a ceramics studio, which stills exists today at the Matchbox Gallery. Don Stuart taught the women in Pangnirtung to weave using the French Gobelins technique. Today, the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts & Crafts is one of only four such tapestry studios in the world.

Linda Kaviok - Amauti, Linda Kaviok, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Linda Kaviok - Amauti (2015)

Danny Etooangat - Kayak, Danny Etooangat, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Danny Etooangat - Kayak (2015)

During the thirty-year period between 1970 and 1999, Inuit art flourished, and became internationally known and identified as distinctly Canadian. Then in 1999, Nunavut, with a population of just over thirty thousand and a landmass the size of Western Europe, was created as Canada’s newest territory. Aboriginal self determination afforded the 85% Inuit population self-determination through a land claims agreement and public government.

Philippa Aggark - Mini Kamiks (Booties), Philippa Aggark, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Philippa Aggark - Mini Kamiks (Booties) (2015)

Nunavut comprises three regions, Qikiqtaaluk in the east, the Kivalliq in the central Arctic, and the Kitikmeot in the west. Each region has its own distinctive art, stylistically determined in large part by the stone used for its carvings and sculpture. The hardness of the stone in the Kivalliq resulted in distinctive strong, simple sculptural forms, primarily of the human figure and animals. The softer serpentine used in the east lent itself to more ornate and detailed pieces displaying animals and themes of transformation, fantasy and legends. The art from the Kitikmeot, created from stone and mixed media such as bone, whalebone, musk ox horn, caribou antler and fur, often resulted in scary, large-eyed monster-like creatures.

Iziasie Kopalie - Hunter, Iziasie Kopalie, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Iziasie Kopalie - Hunter (2015)

Today, after almost sixty years, Inuit visual art as most people know it, is changing and evolving. The rise of interest in film, the media arts, performance arts and music, primarily among the youth of Nunavut, is offering artists a new way of expressing their culture. It is an exciting time for the arts in Nunavut as artists search to find new means of expression.

MFA, Inuit Art Critic

Jolly Atagoyuk - Beluga Following Alone With Whales, Jolly Atagoyuk, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Jolly Atagoyuk - Beluga Following Alone With Whales (2015)

Amee (Amie) Kakee - Walrus With Shaman Face (2015) by Amee (Amie) KakeeImago Mundi

Nunavut’s Culture on Cloth: Traditional Wall Hangings from Baker Lake

Inuit art is the eye of the culture. Through Inuit art we see the connectedness of the people to the land. Through Inuit art we see the connectedness between the human, animal and spirit world. Nunavut has had an indigenous population for about four thousand years... it is the size of Western Europe. Baker Lake is the geographical centre of Canada. Baker Lake is the only inland community of Nunavut... not on an ocean or the Hudson Bay. Baker Lake is part of Nunavut, which became a territory of Canada on April 1, 1999. Today, about a thousand seven hundred people live in Baker Lake. Due to a severe famine in the late 1950s, the nomadic way of life gave way to permanently settling into the community. Qamani’tuaq is the Inuktitut name for Baker Lake. Neevingatah means something to hang, in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people. The women cleaned the skin, chewed it to soften it and tanned it. Sewing is a skill, which was crucial for survival. A few broken stitches in caribou skin clothing, when the hunter left the igloo, meant he could freeze to death. The ability to sew was critical. Their stories are told through needle and thread.

Evie Kunilusie - Winter Scene, Evie Kunilusie, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Evie Kunilusie - Winter Scene (2015)

These wall hangings are created in the privacy of each artist’s home. There is no communal workshop. Each is a unique piece, representing the vision, stories and memories of each artist. The stitches are the signature of each artist. Nunavut’s Culture on Cloth is a collection of nineteen wall hangings created by the women of Baker Lake in the privacy of their homes. Using vibrant colours and patterns, the tapestries convey Inuit stories, beliefs, and traditions. The artworks are stitched by hand on duffle cloth and tell stories of the Canadian Arctic and have been seen around the world (Mongolia, China, India, Latvia, Mexico, Japan, Finland, Russia, France, Argentina, Sweden, Netherlands, Croatia, Canada, to name a few countries).

Ramona Barkhouse - Barren Beauty, Ramona Barkhouse, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Ramona Barkhouse - Barren Beauty (2015)

The tapestries use strong blocks and lines of colour to depict traditional Inuit hunting scenes and enigmatic symbols of significance to Inuit culture. With no written tradition, the Inuit used tapestries such as these to convey their history and beliefs. The application of women’s traditional sewing skills to the production of textile art first started in the settlement of Baker Lake, Nunavut, in the 1960s. After making wool duffle mittens, socks, and clothing, seamstresses used the leftover multi- coloured pieces of fabric to make art to hang on walls. In embracing a foreign artistic medium, the women of Baker Lake made their wall hangings a vehicle for expressing centuries-old Inuit traditions, and gave birth to a uniquely Canadian art form.

Adina Tarralik Duffy - Inuit Pop Art – Pipsi, Adina Tarralik Duffy, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Adina Tarralik Duffy - Inuit Pop Art – Pipsi (2015)

Traditionally, sewing was a vital survival skill for Inuit living on the land. The women’s ingenuity and skilful stitching transformed animal hides into clothing, blankets, tents, and even into seafaring vessels such as the kayak. The entire family depended upon the sewing ability of women, from the men on the hunt to babies cuddled in their mother’s parka hood. In the long winter months in their igloos, as women decorated their parkas and garments with lavish colourful decorations, their daughters would learn to sew by observation. All these age-old skills have been transferred to the modern textile art of today’s Inuit women. These talented seamstresses easily apply their distinctive and complex abilities to their modern wall hangings, on which they depict the animals of the Arctic, the lifestyle of the Inuit, and the spiritual perceptions of their ancestors.

Fanny Avatituq - Inuk Games In The Igloo, Fanny Avatituq, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Fanny Avatituq - Inuk Games In The Igloo (2015)

Jaco Ishulutak, Jaco Ishulutak, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Jaco Ishulutak - Seal (2015)

Culture on Cloth is now a global arts and education project that I direct that creates connections to and from the Arctic through art. Culture on Cloth is organized in concert with regional museums and government entities and its events are hosted in countries all over the world. Early Culture on Cloth projects focus on a specialized Arctic art tradition: handmade Inuit wall hangings that are shipped and shown around the world. Major museums participate in those programs that fit closely with their own art missions and expertise. Today I have refined the learning model to a more interactive approach and broadened the programming to specialize in children’s events and education. Interactive children’s work has been so well received that country projects are now designed with youth development programs as core curricula. What are these “interactive activities”? Culture on Cloth country projects and outcomes extend beyond arts appreciation to cultural dialogues with exercises that help children learn to tell their own stories through art – art that in turn is viewed by other children far away. New children’s tapestries are stitched with local materials and local images to share with other children around the world. Culture on Cloth programs continue to identify and share selected Arctic artworks around the globe in great public spaces and galleries. Today, however, the program encourages children to join in building new bridges between their own communities and the communities of the Arctic. The Culture on Cloth project has become a vehicle for children to celebrate symbols of their own lives and to share in the personal creation of an interconnected world.

Elizabeth Gordon - Beluga Pod, Elizabeth Gordon, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Elizabeth Gordon - Beluga Pod (2015)

The artwork created by the elders in Baker Lake shared their Culture on Cloth with many other parts of the world. The wall hangings are visually accessible to all ages and peoples. All cultures have had needles and thread – although maybe not caribou shinbone needles and sinew for thread. The oral tradition is clearly alive on these wall hangings, where a written tradition isn’t available and can’t enlighten other cultures.

Johnny Amittu - Beluga, Johnny Amittu, 2012, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Johnny Amittu - Beluga (2012)

The excitement produced by the Culture on Cloth program continues to amaze me. I always include two large maps – one of this hemisphere, showing Ottawa and Baker Lake, the other of the globe showing the host country and Baker Lake. In this world, experience is about human beings reaching out to understand and appreciate one another. The kindness and warmth I have felt in every location is astounding. Through sharing their own culture on cloth, the elder women of Baker Lake have made our world a smaller place. In helping to coordinate many key aspects of the Culture on Cloth project around the world, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs is continuing to show its commitment to all peoples.


Arctic Culture Forum, Arctic Studies Center, Smithsonian Institution

Curator of Nunavut’s Culture on Cloth

Igah Hainnu - Flying Geese At Dusk, Igah Hainnu, 2015, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
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Igah Hainnu - Flying Geese At Dusk (2015)

Credits: Story

Art Direction, Photography and Production

Project Management
La Biennale di Malindi Ltd

Jennifer Karch Verzè

Project Coordinator
Oriano Mabellini

Valentina Granzotto

Editorial coordination
Enrico Bossan

Luciano Benetton
Monica Ell-Kanayuk
Patricia Feheley
Rowena House
Debra Jones
Jennifer Karch Verzè
Oriano Mabellini
Judith Varney
Burch Kyra
Vladykov Fisher

Editing and Translation
Melinda Akulukjuk, Pangnirtung
Emma Cole
Louis Dornez, Aglu, Rankin Inlet
Sara Favilla
David Ford, Baker
Lake Joemie, Cape Dorset
Helen Kaloon, Gjoa Haven
Chiara Longhi
Mialia Lyta, Iqaluit
Camilla Mozzato
Theresie Tungilik, Rankin Inlet
Pietro Valdatta

Art direction
Daniele Tonon

Marco Pavan

Patrick Aula - Sedna And Sea Creatures

Marco Zanin (artworks)
Jennifer Karch Verzè (introductions)

Special thanks
This amazing collection of Inuit art from Canada, could not have come about without the complete and utter dedication to the project by foremost the Project Manager, Mr Oriano Mabellini of the Fondazione Sarenco and the collaboration of many public and private organizations and institutions in Canada (in alphabetical order):
— Axenéo7, Gatineau, Quebec
— Heather Beecroft, Adventure Canada
— Leslie Boyd
— Contemporary Lynx, Poland
— Monica Ell-Kanayuk, Department of Economic Development and Transportation, Government of Nunavut
— Patricia Feheley, Feheley Fine Arts, Toronto, Ontario
— Kyra Vladykov Fisher
— Fondazione Sarenco, Salò, Italy
— David Ford, Jessie Oonark Centre, Baker Lake,
— Nancy Guyon, Tourism and Cultural Industries,
at Department of Economic Development
and Transportation, Government of Nunavut
— Alexa Hatanaka, Embassy of Imagination,
Cape Dorset, Nunavut
— Rowena House, Nunavut Arts and Crafts
Association, Iqaluit, Nunavut
— William Huffman, Dorset Fine Arts, Toronto, Ontario
— Oksana Ignatush
— Debra Jones, Arctic Co-operatives Limited
— McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg,
— Richard Murdoch, Art Nunavik, Baie d’Urfé, Quebec
— Museum of Inuit Art, Toronto, Ontario
— Alysa Procida, Inuit Art Foundation, Toronto, Ontario
— RJ Rammatan, Arctic Co-operatives Limited
— Bill Ritchie, West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative Limited, Cape Dorset, Nunavut
— Starmach Gallery, Krakow, Poland
— Judith Varney Burch

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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