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The North Baffin Drawing Collection

The transformations that gripped the lives of Inuit during the mid 1960s live on in the memories of northerners today. It was a time of change, when families began to move off the land and into the growing settlements, dramatically altering a way of life known for many generations. The widespread implementation of day- and residential schools, expansion of government services, arrival of the snowmobile and wood-framed homes ushered in — sometimes painfully — a whole new way of life. Inuit themselves saw their world changing better than southerners, although they were seldom asked to share their thoughts on these changes.

It was in this milieu that the artist and long-time employee of the Cape Dorset art studio, Terry Ryan, saw the importance of documenting people’s experiences and lives. In 1963, he applied to the Canada Council of the Arts for a grant to support an innovative idea: to travel to three communities and associated encampments in the North Baffin Region, distribute paper and pencils, and invite people to “draw anything”. Ryan’s idea was simple: give people the opportunity to record what they wanted and how they wanted. Ryan’s grant application underscored the urgency of the project, to record Inuit visual expressions “before the mounting influences of southern civilization in the Arctic replace the past and in many cases the still present mode of living and thinking among the Inuit.”

Cornelius (Kooneeloosee) Nutarak (Pond Inlet), Using Blubber to Make Fuel, 1964, graphite, pencil crayon on paper. Canadian Museum of History, IV-C-6952

The Canada Council of the Arts saw value in the project and by February of 1964 Ryan had left the bustling art studio in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, which he then called home, and was bound on a flight to Clyde River. He knew many people in the community due to his meteorological work six years earlier, which greatly facilitated his efforts. He spent more than a week in Clyde River, hiring a dog team and guides to travel to the outlying encampments where he distributed paper and visited with old friends, such as Sakkiasie Arreak. With Arreak, along with Simeonie Qayak and James Jaypoody as guides, he travelled by dog team to Pond Inlet, a distance of more than 400 kilometres. With the beautiful North Baffin Mountains as a backdrop, but beset by illness and slowed by rough sea ice, this trip took 14 difficult days. After several more weeks in and around Pond Inlet distributing paper, he flew to Arctic Bay, another 240 kilometres west, then retraced his journey on his way home, collecting all the drawings from Arctic Bay, Pond Inlet and Clyde River before returning to Iqaluit in May 1964. Though he never travelled to Igloolik, he mailed some papers to the community and received a small packet of completed drawings from them several months later, shipped out by the Hudson Bay Company.

Ryan offered little instruction about what or how artists should approach the drawings, although even his general invitation to participate was likely entangled by the vagaries of interpretation. One of his interpreters in Clyde River thought Ryan wanted “stories” rather than pictures, which resulted in many pages of narrative text without any visual images from this community. It may also be true that many contributors simply took it upon themselves to record whatever they felt was important to preserve for posterity. In fact, a majority of all the drawings contain some degree of Inuktitut writing (no finals were used, rendering it challenging to read today), from single words that “name” an object, person, or place in a drawing, to long paragraphs that run on for several pages.

Lydia Atagootak (Pond Inlet), Women’s Responsibilities Then and Now, 1964, graphite on paper. Canadian Museum of History IV-C-8208

Ryan collected a little over 1,860 drawings, created by 87 men and 72 women aged seven to 70 (most were between 20 and 50). The drawings are not small, either. Sized at roughly 50 by 65 cm, they are arresting visual statements that represent an astonishing array of visual styles, artistic skills, and aims. Overall, the collection documents a staggeringly diverse array of themes including historical events, hunting practices, myths and legends, as well as many episodes culled from everyday life, big and small. The drawings reveal a compulsion to record history and Inuit traditional knowledge, and a desire to share people’s thoughts, hopes, aspirations, and anxieties about their lives.

Apart from an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1986, the collection has essentially remained out of sight for five decades. That is, until 2014, when it was acquired by the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. At this time, I began to reach out to the communities of Pond Inlet and Clyde River to develop a travelling exhibition around the collection. In 2015, with the support of a grant to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University from the Museums Assistance Program, Department of Heritage Canada, I visited Piqqusilirivvik in Clyde River to pour through the collection with several elders and educators. Huddled around a wide-screen monitor, people would linger over a drawing for 40 minutes or more, eagerly debating the exact meanings of words that had long fallen out of use. Later, the community-based heritage organizations Ittaq and Ilisaqsiviq jumped into the project, and in early 2016, I worked with a team in Clyde River to conduct interviews for interpretive video that would be used in the exhibition. The project found many supporters in Pond Inlet, and interviews there were accomplished that year with the support of the Pond Inlet Archives. People were hungry to see the drawings — the collection is an unparalleled repository of Inuit traditional knowledge, language, and place-name resource. As the linguist and educator Elijah Tigullaraq said during an interview, “The drawings are unique, they are different. They are about Inuit history, the language, the culture—clothing, living, legends, animals, everything for men and women.”

In January 2017, the exhibition, Picturing Arctic Modernity: North Baffin Drawings from 1964 opened at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University. Co-produced between the Agnes and the Canadian Museum of History, the exhibition involved the contributions of nearly 20 interviewees, several co-ordinators, many interpreters and translators, and even a film crew and editors from the North, not to mention a large team of production services, researchers, and museum professionals in the south. Of course, with just 50 drawings, the exhibition barely scratches the surface of this vast drawing collection. That is why the exhibition also includes 40 short videos of the artists, their families, and other community members who provide their own interpretation of the drawings. Between August and October of 2017, the exhibition will be at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit, Nunavut. From late October to January 2018, the exhibition will be split in two, with one half going to Clyde River and the other to Pond Inlet. If you can’t catch the exhibition on its northern tour — or the cross-Canada tour to follow, all the digital content can be accessed online in English, French and Inuktitut: https://agnes.queensu.ca/microsites/picturing-arctic-modernity/en/index.htm

What comes next for the North Baffin Drawing collection? Perhaps that is the most exciting question. While exhibitions are fleeting, evidence shows that museum collections can play a profoundly transformative and positive role in the reclamation of Indigenous cultural identity, health, and social well-being.

I am presently working with various cultural and heritage organizations in Nunavut to discuss the possibility of developing a reciprocal research network around this collection, that would use contemporary digital technologies to link northern communities with the Canadian Museum of History and Queen’s University. Such a network will empower communities, foster cross-cultural and cross-generational understandings, and provide ongoing northern access to these drawings so they can be used in schools, by heritage groups, and other researchers. The drawings are a legacy for the future, a testament to the foresight of Terry Ryan, and evidence of Inuit creative agency during a time of great change.