September 21, 2020

Inuit art gallery celebrates goodwill, arctic chill

The Art Gallery’s current exhibit, ‘Contemporary Inuit Art from Cape Dorset,’ features 26 works of art created by Eskimos in northern Canada’s Nunavut Territory. At left is ‘Illustrious Owl’ by Kenojuak Ashevak, Cape Dorset’s most prolific artist. At right is ‘Handstand’ by Shuvinai Ashoona. The exhibit honors traditions, wildlife and the land. (Photos courtesy of Sarah Cunningham)


To see your plight exquisitely rendered, head to the Art Gallery in the Art and Interactive Multimedia building from now until March 2. The current exhibit, “Contemporary Inuit Art from Cape Dorset,” comes to the College from Kinngait Studios, located in Canada’s Nunavut Territory.

Crafted by a people intimately familiar with plunging mercury levels, “Contemporary Inuit Art from Cape Dorset” offers a glimpse into the lives of the Eskimos who created it. Their art is often playful, alternately realistic and fanciful and always respectful of its chilly inspiration — the territory by which it was inspired.

The exhibit contains 26 works by 11 artists, including Kenojuak Ashevak, a famous daughter of Cape Dorset known for her art in the “primarily hunting and fishing community,” according to Sarah Cunningham, College Art Gallery director.

“She is by far the best known artist from (Cape Dorset), partially because she’s been working so long, and partially because her work is so strong,” Cunningham said.

Other artists whose works are displayed include Mary Pudlat, Kavavaow Mannomee and Tikitu Qinnuayuak, whose stonecut and stencil print, “First Time Kayaker” shows an aerial view of a man in a long wooden kayak, set against an immense stretch of white.

While leading a sketching class through the gallery, Cunningham told students to take note of the white backdrop.

“This is something you notice in a lot of the works — this expanse,” she said. “You have to think it might have come from living in an area that’s such an expanse … This experience of vastness is part of everyday life. You see, it’s a depiction of daily life.”

Most of the pieces are prints of sketches created in Kinngait Studios. The studio is a division of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (WBEC). The WBEC is one of 35 government owned co-ops designed to stimulate economic activity in the Arctic territories.

“This is one of the 35 that has focused its activities on arts,” Cunningham said. “(The co-op) encouraged all people to draw.”

Draw they did — Inuit artists have produced more than 100,000 sketches since the WBEC’s inception in 1959, according to the Dorset Fine Arts website. Many of these sketches are made into prints, to be sold at Kinngait Studios’ wholesale gallery in Toronto.

Despite its commercial focus on prints, the studio still celebrates the art of sketching.

Cunningham explained, gesturing towards “Surprised Goose,” a lithograph featuring a portrait of a goose reacting to a small bird landing on its head.

“I think this is one of the pieces where you can tell how rooted the studio still is in drawing,” Cunningham said, making note of the intricate design of the birds’ wings.

She also commented on the lack of backdrop behind the disheveled creatures. Like “First Time Kayaker,” “Surprised Goose” sets its tan and gray birds against a swath of white.

“I think without the expanse of white, the image would become quite subdued,” Cunningham said. “Yet it pops against the white.”

Several of the exhibit’s works toy with color, experimenting with palettes outside the deep blues and tans that comprise most of the prints.

Mary Pudlat’s “On Spring Ice” features six bundled-up Eskimo children playing on ice. The drab tones of the ice and the youngsters’ boots and pants are offset by the brilliant hues of their jackets — orange, green, red, pink and dark blue.

The juxtaposition of bright and dull color is examined further in Shuvinai Ashoona’s “Handstand.” The piece depicts a playful young Eskimo in the titular position, his orange pants all the more jaunty against a white backdrop.

It’s junior art education major Matt Pembleton’s favorite piece.

“The colors are really nice, and the tight detail,” Pembleton said. “It’s meticulous, but very playful and fun. It kind of draws you in. That’s why I like this one.”

Ashoona’s other piece, “Quilt of Dreams,” attracts Pembleton’s interest as well. The lithograph depicts scenes of Eskimo life in small, colored squares, placed side-by-side to form a quilt-like tableau.

“It’s kind of like a story, this one — the panels are like a life. It’s autobiographical, in a lot of ways. The animals, the people, where they live. It’s very dreamlike — well, ‘Quilt of Dreams,’” Pembleton said.

Animals are featured prominently in Ashoona’s “Quilt of Dreams.” A close kinship with wildlife is a dominant motif of the exhibit.

Owls, fish, birds, whales and bears populate the exhibit, appearing in nearly every print.

Some feature more than one, including Ashevak’s 1967 engraving “Bear and Bird,” the oldest piece in the exhibit.

Several other pieces unite animal life and human life, creating harmonious portraits of life in a hunting and fishing village.

Ashevak’s “Women Speak of Spring Fishing” is one such piece. The lithograph includes renderings of humans, birds and fish, executed in the “bold graphic style” Cunningham associates with Ashevak’s work in the exhibit booklet provided by the gallery.

Ashevak’s portfolio typifies Inuit art in its respectful depiction of animals, whether she is portraying them realistically or fancifully.

“Illustrious Owl” features a grand-looking black and tan owl with colored, teardrop-shaped petals sprouting from its feathers, peacock style.

All told, of the 26 pieces in the gallery, six include owls, three include bears, 10 include birds, five include fish and four include whales.

That’s more than include Eskimos — and eight of the exhibit’s prints feature the coat-sheathed Canadians.

So the next time you’re wandering campus, shivering and cursing the last throes of winter, step out of the cold and into the Art Gallery. And remember, when it was 24 degrees on Monday night in Ewing, it was -17 degrees in Cape Dorset.

Emily Brill can be reached at

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