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March/April 2011 | by Dave Brosha

After decades of successful operation, the much-heralded arts component of the Holman Eskimo Co-operative, known for decades in the art world for its strong drawing and printmaking tradition, had all but faded away into near obscurity. The loss to the community of this main cultural hub was deeply felt. And so it was that respected Yellowknife-based arts consultant, Lynn Feasey, was tasked in 2006 to fly to the hamlet, officially renamed Ulukhaktok, that same year, to look into the possibility of reopening a new local venue for the arts — the Ulukhaktok Arts Centre.

“The print shop had been closed for six years; I was asked to facilitate some development workshops. The week I spent with the artists was full of ‘milestones’ that were as simple as turning on the lights for the first time in six years… and running the lithography press. We applauded each little task with reverence and excitement, and I watched asthe lights turned on inside the artists.”

It was a five year journey from that point, but in January 2011, a small group of NWT MLAs, dignitaries, and representatives from the Northwest Territories Business Development and Investment Corporation (BDIC) — which oversaw the work needed to unlock the doors once again — arrived in the community to celebrate a momentous occasion: the official re-launching of the Centre, much to the artists’ and community’s collective joy.

Mohammad Zidoune, the BDIC General Manager of the Centre since January 2010, explains that the significance to the community is strong. “With a population of less than 500 people, Ulukhaktok is similar to small traditional communities in the territories with hunting, trapping and fishing as the majorsources of income. I am confident that with facilities of printmaking, carving (musk-ox horn, caribou antler and soap stone) and Qiviut knitting inside the Ulukhaktok Arts Centre, these activities will be the primary source of income. This is an important initiative towards economic development of the community that size. We also hope to make it a tourist attraction.”

The artists themselves, who displayed their work proudly to their visitors, echo this thought. For printmaker, Peter Palvik, the journey was long but rewarding. “We’ve been working 10 years to make this happen. It’s not only great for (our) income, but we hope that it will also allow the younger generation to develop as artists.” Printmaker Julia Ekpakohak, agrees. “I’m very happy about it. We have far too many old buildings that need to be renewed — I’m honoured to be part of this reopening”.

The vibrant red-sided Arts and Crafts Centre, situated near the centre of the community, not only showcases Ulukhaktok’s strong printmaking tradition (the late Inuk artist, Helen Kalvak — recipient of the Order of Canada for her body of work, which has been showcased around the world — was from Ulukhaktok), but also other art and craft disciplines such as carving and knitting. Each has its own area within the Centre and visitors are free to watch the artists as they work in their respective specialty.

Many in the community shared in the spirit of the day, as did the guests, who both enjoyed a feast in the Helen Kalvak Elihakvik School before being treated to a demonstration from traditional drum dancers, who eventually convinced the guests — including Bob McLeod, MLA Yellowknife South — to dance with them.

With this spirit of happiness and rejuvenation, the day, and the official reopening, ended. As Centre artist Susie Malgokak mused, “This is so exciting. It’s hard to explain, but I feel like I’ve now found something that was lost…inside.”