In preparation for my trip to Cape Dorset, Nunavut, I had read hundreds of pages on the history of Canadian Inuit art, but only in speaking with the artists, carvers, and printmakers at Kinngait Studios, could I even begin to understand how essential this artistic practice is to the members of this small Arctic community.
One of the youngest artists I interviewed, Ooloosie Saila, has only been working with the studio for a year, but art has always been a vital part of her life growing up in Cape Dorset. An ornate drawing of a yellow owl is the first work of Ooloosie’s to be reproduced as a stone cut print, which, to her delight, will be included in the 58th Annual Cape Dorset Print Collection, which will be released to galleries and museums internationally in October 2017. She spoke about her experience getting to work with the printmakers — who are some of the most skilled in the world — excitedly announcing, “I got to choose the colour!”
Unlike many southern artists, the artists in Cape Dorset seldom receive formal training in studio arts, so their artistic practices are largely informed by mentorship and collaboration within the community. Nearly every artist I had the chance to speak to shared a similar story of growing up watching relatives and friends practicing art. When she was a young girl, Ooloosie remembers watching in awe as her friend’s grandmother, the celebrated Inuk artist Kenojuak Ashevak, worked on her drawings in their home.
Ooloosie looked on smiling as we flipped through prints in this year’s collection, enthusiastically pointing out the works of distinguished artists and community leaders like Ningiukulu Teevee, Shuvinai Ashoona, and the late Tim Pitsiulak.
Later that week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ningiukulu Teevee to discuss her 10 works in the upcoming collection. I had already developed an enormous admiration for her whimsical and expressive depictions of animals and life in the North, but listening to Ningiukulu describe the narratives behind each image pushed me to view this work with a new lens.
As we went through the collection, she explained some of her works were simply the product of her imagination, whereas others were inspired by stories she had grown up with or Inuit legends she has studied in her adult life. One story in particular entirely transformed the way I saw the drawing it had inspired — that of the owl and the raven. According to Ningiukulu’s account, long ago, both the raven and the owl were white until, one day, they agreed to paint each other’s feathers with soot. The raven painted the owl first, and the owl was so happy with his new look that he gave the raven a pair of boots as a thank you. When it was the raven’s turn to be painted, he was so excited with his new footwear that he couldn’t sit still, and the owl had to paint the raven all black.
Ningiukulu’s drawing of a raven’s head with a small pair of boots peeking out in the corner provides a distinctly contemporary perspective on this well-known Inuit legend. Where I approached this work with the mind of a collegiate art historian, Ningiukulu showed me that her drawings demand more than simple formal analysis, as they are truly material expressions of the culture found in her beautiful hometown, Cape Dorset.
Claire Foussard is a student at Colgate University in New York, where she double majors in Art History and Anthropology. She is currently collaborating with Dorset Fine Arts on an ethnographic research project about Inuit artists in the contemporary art market. For more information on the Annual Cape Dorset Print Collection, proceed to www.dorsetfinearts.com.