The vibrancy of Inuit culture is palpable across 60 years of art making in Cape Dorset, Nunavut. As the proclaimed capital of Inuit art in Canada, Cape Dorset is home to the most prominent Inuit artists, recognized around the world. Over the course of six decades, the creative industries in Cape Dorset continue to grow and develop with the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative (WBEC) and the commitment of all those involved in its ever-growing pursuits. The success of the cooperative is the driving force of Inuit art that contributes to making Cape Dorset artists iconic both nationally and internationally. What began in 1959 as a government incentive to promote economic stimulation in the Canadian Arctic is now the oldest and most successful Arctic institution of its kind. This venerable cooperative is a testament to the way in which Cape Dorset residents are brought together through their geographical location, tradition and passion for art making. Inuit art from Cape Dorset has come to represent some of the best of Canadian art, and the work of WBEC will corroborate its prosperity for years to come.
It is important to reflect on the last six decades and the hard work and dedication of the cooperative and their infamous artists in making Inuit tradition come to life through art. WBEC was founded to catalyze the creative processes and maintain distribution of artwork made in Cape Dorset. Kinngait Art Studios is the core of Cape Dorset art making, featuring state of the art equipment to ensure quality resources are readily available for all of the artist members. With WBEC’s newly opened Kenojuak Cultural Centre and Print Shop, all of the artists are able to create stunning and quintessential drawings, prints and carvings renown internationally in a facility that exceeds all of the basic necessities. WBEC also works to ensure that all communication, community outreach and business requirements are met to preserve the integrity and excellence of the art made in the studio by its Inuit artist members. In addition, Dorset Fine Arts (DFA) is a subdivision of the cooperative, located in Toronto, Ontario, and established to maintain partnerships with various venues and institutions across the art market on a regional and international scale. Both WBEC and DFA are dedicated to Cape Dorset artists and their iconic art, as well as the continued success of Inuit art historically and in the future. Through these organizations, the beauty of Inuit art is showcased, while the daily logistical details and requirements are taken care of to emphasize the prosperity of art making in the Canadian Arctic, despite limitations associated with its geographical location. WBEC artists are a true tribute to Inuit resilience and ingenuity, with 60 years of rich history as evidence.
In celebration of 60 years of operations, West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative has compiled an Anniversary program to honour the work of all Cape Dorset artists of the past and present, while also forming solid grounds for future growth and success. WBEC has developed an incomparable Inuit art legacy in Canada. One component of the program designed to commemorate this legacy is the Kenojuak Ashevak: Life and Legacy exhibition, scheduled to tour across six regional art venues in Canada from 2020 – 2022
This national exhibition is made possible through the generosity of its lead supporter, Canadian Heritage through its Museums Assistance Program, Access to Heritage component as well as the Government of Nunavut through its Department of Culture and Heritage.
Kenojuak Ashevak was a profound artist and cultural icon from Cape Dorset, influencing artists in Canada, across generations. She practiced art making for more than five decades, receiving numerous awards and achievements along the way, including the prestigious Governor General’s Award. Her copious honours are a testament to her dedication to the preservation of Inuit art and the success of her community members, up until her unfortunate demise. Kenojuak Ashevak is indubitably one of Canada’s most prolific artists, and as such, it is more than fitting that the 60th Anniversary program recognizes her achievements with this commemorative exhibition.
In addition to its importance through its celebration of a prolific Inuit artist, the Kenojuak Ashevak: Life and Legacy exhibition is also noteworthy for its development and featured works. This project is the first ever exhibition produced in the Canadian Arctic for circulation nationally, adding to the list of incredible achievements made possible by WBEC over 60 years. Similarly, the exhibition consists of exquisite drawings from West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative’s archives. These 31 unreleased drawings and three prints truly encapsulate Kenojuak’s infamous style, technique and skill. Her range of ability is unprecedented, as is her ability to capture the natural world around her. Far from linear or chronological, her work signifies the blurring of boundaries, the erosion of divisions and normativity, and a complete erasure of the dichotomy between the mundane and the magical. Kenojuak Ashevak possesses the unique ability to marry concepts from everyday life in Nunavut, with narratives of wildlife that not only redefine the map of temporality and space but also defy the very need to establish borders entirely. With images like the Ravens’ Chorus in both print and drawing featured in the exhibition, Kenojuak Ashevak: Life and Legacy candidly celebrates Ashevak’s cultural significance, as well as her contributions to the development and success of contemporary art in Canada.
Kenojuak Ashevak’s colourful legacy is carried over into present day Inuit art where community members channel her spirited talent and depictions in new and innovative ways. WBEC has also announced a special release of three incredible prints, memorializing the importance of its 60-year milestone. There is one stonecut, one lithograph and one etching featured, in recognition of the development of expertise in each of the various print forms at Kinngait Studios over the past six decades. These stunning prints commemorate 60 years of artistry, of self-taught innovation and the unique and enchanting vision of Inuit artists in Cape Dorset. Kenojuak Ashevak: Life and Legacy is a testament to the history of the WBEC; however, the 2019 special release is a tribute to the future vision of Inuit art in Canada.
In addition to the Ashevak’s featured exhibition and the special release, the 60th Anniversary has also inspired an upcoming International exhibition entitled Living Legacies, to reinvigorate the excitement that began with the very inception of Inuit art through the WBEC in 1959. Living Legacies will be comprised of works created specifically in 2019, by various new and renown Cape Dorset artists to bring the contemporary art of Inuit people to the present art world.
Over the last 60 years, the success and reach of West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative has demonstrated that Inuit art is anything but predictable. With each new artist member, the defining features of Inuit art continue to evolve. Each individual perspective from Cape Dorset artists become a collective experience that is shared with all patrons. The life and spirit of Inuit culture is tangibly felt through each artistic creation, as viewers witness diverse perspectives and shared experiences. The success of WBEC over the last 60 years is simply an indication of the potential for all future Inuit artists. This is truly a testament to the limitless of Inuit art and just how powerful it can be in shaping the dynamic of art in Canada. While we look back, it is with great excitement and anticipation that we can move forward and shape an ever-growing landscape of opportunity for West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative artists and Inuit art as we have come to know it.
Sara Paladino is the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative Research Resident for 2019.