Five Decades Produces

On display at the Canadian Embassy is an art show 50 years in the making. Sort of. It didn’t take 50 years to produce the 36 prints that make up “Nipirasait: Many Voices.” Rather, the show celebrates five decades of Inuit art in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, a hamlet on the southwest tip of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. The works were created by 10 artists from Kinngait Studios. Owned by the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, the studios have released a new collection of prints annually since 1959. As is typical of the works made there, the 2009 collection offers insight into the life and culture of the region through colorful depictions of folk legends, town and camp scenes, and wildlife. For instance, “Sedna’s Wonder,” a lithograph by Ningeokuluk Teevee of a mermaid looking at a jellyfish, refers to an important goddess in traditional Inuit mythology. Sedna “controlled the animals of the sea,” explained Leslie Boyd Ryan, director of Dorset Fine Arts in Toronto, the cooperative’s wholesale marketing division. “It was very important that she be pleased and appeased in order to guarantee a successful hunt. She’s probably the most important female goddess in traditional Inuit mythology.” The prints also illustrate other integral aspects of Inuit culture, from food to the environment. “Arctic Appetizer” by Teevee, for example, shows a platter of nine silver-and-white fish heads arrayed as if for serving. Kananginak Pootoogook’s “Pootoogook Returns” is a beautiful lithograph of a silhouetted boat seemingly returning at sunset from a day of fishing on an aqua sea. Given their traditional dependence on the land, the 1,150 residents of Cape Dorset hold the animals in their surroundings close to their hearts. Images show walruses, fish and several types of birds. “There’s a significance to wildlife in general and particularly birds,” Ryan said. “This is a culture that lives close to the land and has a different understanding of these species.” One example is “Observant Owl” by Kenojuak Ashevak — whose prints appeared in the original 1959 exhibit, along with Pootoogook’s, and who is perhaps the best-known Inuit artist because her work has been used on a postage stamp and she has received the government’s highest honor, the Order of Canada. In her print, the grayish-green bird features large, humanlike eyes and plumes of yellow cooling to red radiating from its body. One print that differs from the rest in appearance is Suvinai Ashoona’s “Quilt of Dreams,” a cartoon-like, multicolored collage of seemingly disparate images such as fish, a syringe, a family and the bow of a boat labeled “Titanic.” “She could be categorized as a more contemporary Inuit artist. She’s a little bit younger, in her mid-40s,” Ryan explained. “That quilt, every panel, every square, is autobiographical. Every one of those motifs represents something significant to her. It’s really kind of a visual memoir for her.” In recent years, Inuit artists have been moving beyond the confines of custom and culture, added Catherine Tedford, curator of the show and director of the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., which owns the collection. “Having a 50th anniversary is a marker in time, and what’s interesting is it’s a time when you can look to the past and look to the future,” she said. “I think sometimes people think a culture should maintain this strictly traditional, pure heritage, which is never going to be the case. Culture is always going to evolve and morph into new variations. What I liked about this 50th-year anniversary collection is that they recognized that. They didn’t put it together looking to the past.” But of course a glance backward is necessary to understand the success of the artists in Cape Dorset, dubbed the “capital of Inuit art.” The printmaking and drawing program there was introduced in the mid-1950s by James Houston, a Canadian government employee who was also an artist. He taught the Inuit how to make a printed image of their drawings, and the technique caught on. Much has changed in 50 years, including the methodology. “Linocut and stencil were the first media used,” Ryan said. “That developed very quickly into stone-cut. The lithography studio was an addition in the 1970s. That simply allowed for a broader range of technique and expression.” And that expression has also evolved, she added. “The experience of the artists has changed so much. They’re no longer nomadic people living in remote camps. They have grown up in what are increasingly modern communities. As modern elements have been introduced to the north, they have found their way into Inuit art.” Both Ryan and Tedford hope exhibition viewers come away with the sense that each artist has his or her own style and message. “It’s not simply generic Inuit art — it’s very specifically Kenojuak or specifically Suvinai,” Ryan said of the artists. “What I would like to see is that people recognize these artists as individual artists,” Tedford said. “It’s not just a body of work by anonymous artists. It’s these artists and they have these perspectives.” Nipirasait: Many Voices through Dec. 30 Embassy of Canada 501 Pennsylvania Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 682-1740 or visit

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.