Four generations later, the artists of Cape Dorset continue a tradition of Inuit expression that makes this tiny hamlet on Nunavut’s Baffin Island a creative powerhouse like no other.
My favourite time to visit the Kinngait Studios complex in Cape Dorset are Tuesdays and Thursdays, on buying days, when local artists bring their freshly created drawings and sculptures to be purchased by the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative. These brand new treasures are then transported through a unique distribution system that takes them to the Cooperative’s marketing division in Toronto, called Dorset Fine Arts, and then onto exhibitions and art collections around the world. Artmaking is so important to the livelihood of this tiny Arctic enclave. Some estimates put more than a quarter of Dorset’s 1,200 residents as either directly or peripherally involved in the community’s art industry. And some numbers indicate that annually, $4,000,000 is generated by the sale of artwork. I guess that’s why they call Cape Dorset the capital of Inuit art!
There’s been four generations of Cape Dorset artists, with the earliest pioneers like Kenojuak Ashevak, Pitseolak Ashoona and Kananginak Pootoogook working back in the late 1950s. A current cohort, still invests in the technical traditions of stone sculpture, drawing and printmaking but are approaching it with a distinct freshness. In recent years, Inuit artists have been presented alongside their international peers in major exhibitions. Take for example the series of projects curated by Nancy Campbell at the University of Toronto. For each of the three exhibitions, a Dorset artist was paired with a prominent non-Inuit counterpart to
illustrate the similarities and differences between the north and south approaches. We’re also seeing Inuit creative expression deepening its relevance within larger discussions of world issues. In late 2015, the exhibition Linked was presented at Monaco’s Oceanographic Museum and it examined climate change from an Inuit perspective.
So who are some of Cape Dorset’s cultural movers and shakers? A trio of standouts immediately come to mind: Shuvinai Ashoona, Tim Pitsiulak and Ningeokuluk Teevee. These three enjoy senior status in their community and are certainly no strangers to the international stage.
For Ashoona, in addition to her exhibitions across Canada and the world, these complex and surreal compositions can be found in Phaidon’s seminal book entitled Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing and in the publication Universal Cobra for which she collaborated with Canadian art star Shary Boyle.
The Arctic wildlife and landscape-inspired works of Tim Pitsiulak are common in countless private and public collections. If you’re visiting downtown Toronto’s TD Centre, look for his gargantuan whale drawing located in the building’s lobby. You might have your very own Pitsiulak original and not even know it! Check pockets and change purses for a Canadian quarter graced with another of Pitsiulak’s whales.
Ningeokuluk Teevee is a favourite of the Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection, which is a suite of works that’s been launched at galleries worldwide since 1959. Beginning in 2004, her work is consistently an important addition to the collection, and this year, Teevee’s contribution is unusually fashion forward — the stonecut print depicts a raven’s claw wearing a stiletto shoe.
There’s also a younger generation of Inuit artists shaping Dorset’s next cultural chapter; Saimaiyu Akesuk and Padloo Samayualie are head of that class.
A mere 30 years old, Akesuk has already had some time in the spotlight at places like the Brooklyn Museum. In 2015, she was one of two Inuit artists who inaugurated The Cape Dorset Legacy Project, an annual creative residency and symposium hosted at this legendary New York institution.
Padloo Samayualie is making some serious waves with distinctive architecturally inspired drawings. Her practice illustrates a fascination with the constructed environment and often depicts her immediate Cape Dorset surroundings while also highlighting some of the places to which she’s travelled.
Inuit art from Cape Dorset is widely regarded as the finest being produced anywhere in the Arctic. Whether it’s the Cape Dorset Annual Print Collection or the many innovative exhibitions presented at galleries and museums around the world, this stuff is an artistic big deal. To the Dorset talents who make this work, Inuit art is as important a visual expression as it is an economic imperative. And for those of us who simply enjoy or perhaps collect this extraordinary work, we’re quite sure that even four generations later, the best is yet to come!
For more information about Inuit art or to locate a specializing gallery in your part of the world visit, www.dorsetfinearts.com.
William Huffman is a curator, writer, educator and arts administrator.
He is currently the Marketing Manager for Dorset Fine Arts.