Inuit Art History
Prehistoric Arctic Art
Canada’s Arctic has been inhabited by humans for at least 4'000 years. The first people currently known to have produced a significant amount of figurative art belonged to the Dorset culture (c. 600 B.C. - 1000 A.D.). The objects they carved from bone, ivory and wood included birds, bears, and other land and sea animals, human figures, masks and maskettes, and face clusters. It is believed that these works had a definite magic or religious intent, and that they were worn as amulets or used in shamanic rituals.
The poeple of the Thule culture (ancestors of today’s Inuit) migrated from northern Alaska around 1000 A.D. and drove or wiped out the earlier Dorset inhabitants. Thule art was based on Alaskan prototypes; it included some human and animal figures, but consisted primarily of the graphic embellishment of utilitarian objects such as combs, needle cases, harpoon toggles and gaming pieces. The devorative or figurative incised markings on these objects do not seem to have had religious significance.
Inuit Sculpture in Recent Times
A colder climate disrupted the Thule culture in the 16th century, about the same time as contact with the white man began. Inuit began to barter with whalers, missionaries and other foreigners. Carvings of animals, as well as replicas of tools and western-style objects, most often fashioned from ivory, became common trade goods. The first few centuries of European contact are usually referred to as the Historic Period.
The contemporary period of Inuit art began in the late 1940s. When the federal government recognized the potential economic benefit to the Inuit, it actively encouraged the development and promotion of Inuit sculpture, greatly assisted by the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild. Inuit-owned cooperatives were established in the 1950s and 60s in most Arctic communities, as well as art marketing agencies in southern Canada. As well as providing much-needed income in isolated Arctic villages, Inuit sculpture has achieved an inernational reputation as a major contemporary art form.
Imagery and Styles
At first glance, Inuit sculpture may seem to be a relatively homogeneous art form but, in fact, ist subject matter and styles are richly varied. The Inuit population is widely distributed across Canada’s north, so that each of the 30 or so art-producing communities has developed ist own favourite subjects and distinctive sculptural style.
The themes of Arctic wildlife, and traditional Inuit hunting and family scenes are still popular, but spirit figures, and mythological and shamanic images also abound. Styles, too, range from strict naturalism or decorative stylization to minimal abstraction, and from brutal expressionism to whimsical surrealism. The personal styles of individual artists are readily identifiable by those who take time to look more closely.
Inuit Stonecut and Stencil Prints
Printmaking in the Canadian Arctic started in Cape Dorset in the late 1950s. Working in poorly heated plywood buildings, a small group of interested people experimented with the use of local materials: supplies being brought in by ship once a year, conditions did not allow for elaborate printmaking techniques requiring complicated equipment.
From these early beginnings developed two very basic printmaking techniques: the stonecut and the stencil. Both require a minimum of equipment and technical training and, in Arctic printshops, have remained the most popular techniques to this day. Print collectors are attracted to the stonecut and the stencil because in both techniques every step within the printmaking process is carried out manually, making each impression a multi-original.
In the Canadian North, the role of the artist who does the drawing and that of the printmaker who rendres the print are normally quite separate. Usually the artist does his or her drawing at home, later selling it to the local co-operative that runs the printshop. It may then eventually be chosen by the full-time printmakers working in the printshop as the image for a print.
The degree to which the artist is involved when the print is rendered depends upon the artist’s willingness to participate in the process. In many cases the artist sees only the final print to sign it.
For these reasons the Inuit printmaker deserves to be considered much more than a skilful technician. His creative input varies - depending on the drawing he works from - but it is often of equal importance to the artist’s in the creation of a print.
There are five Arctic printshops that have been involved consistently in printmaking for many years: Holman on Victoria Island in the Western Arctic, Baker Lake in the Keewatin, Cape Dorset and Pangnirtung on Baffin Island, and Povungnituk in Arctic Quebec. Each of these printshops has developed different approaches in the use of the stonecut and stencil.
Reproduced with permission from the Canadian Government Booklet: Canadian Inuit Sculpture