Amidst three millennia of Inuit art, 60 years is a brief exhale. But it’s a brief exhale that has seen an unprecedented effusion of Inuit art into the contemporary art dialogue from the tiny Nunavut hamlet of Kinngait (formerly known as Cape Dorset).
Since 1957, Kinngait Studios, the art studios of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, has released an annual print collection and cultivated generations of talented artists and sculptors. It’s the longest running print studio in Canada. But the 1990s saw a seismic shift in perspective from traditional Inuit imagery driven by assumed western art market interest towards something new, something contemporary.
Pushed by the intimate drawings of Annie Pootoogook, and emblematic in artistic works from Shuvinai Ashoona, Tim Pitsiulak, and Jutai Toonoo, this shift will be reflected in the RBC Lounge at the Masterpiece Art Fair in London this summer.
“Annie’s work and its success signalled to her contemporaries that they could create work that reflected their own reality and experience, and in that have success,” says Patricia Feheley, owner of Feheley Fine Arts.
Pootoogook, a granddaughter of the first generation of artists working from Kinngait, didn’t want to draw a traditional life at odds with her lived experience. One of the first artists to break into large scale drawings, the scenes she drew were familiar, drenched in the daily life of the frozen north and staggeringly honest.
And it was that honesty that caught the attention of a broader contemporary art community, the coexistence of traditional Inuit culture coexist alongside modern realities: Inuit gathered around a television set eating seal in the traditional way with soy sauce added as a contemporary footnote; scenes with nods to The Simpsons and ATM cash machines, frozen food dinners and Nintendo consoles. There was a universality to the issues she depicted stemming from social problems.
Pootoogook was also the first Inuit contemporary artist to create large-scale collaborations with a southern artist, as represented by works displayed in the lounge with John Noesthenden.
Her success and the growing appetite for Inuit art helped inspire others like Pitsiulak and Ashoona, to pursue contemporary threads in their own work.
“Tim Pitsiulak came into the studios and drew about not just contemporary issues, but his reality as one of the leading hunters in the community,” says Feheley.
Ashoona, a cousin of Pootoogook and a decade older, moved towards drawings of surreal but personal imagery, refracting all-too-familiar symbols like the black baleen from a bowhead whale, through a rainbow lens – her technicolour vision now definitive of her work.
The works on display at the RBC Lounge include:
Shuvinai Ashoona and John Noestheden Untitled Collaboration, 2008; Shuvinai Ashoona Composition (Egg and Moon), 2009; Shuvinai Ashoona Composition (Rainbow Baleen), 2018; Shuvinai Ashoona Exercising After Work, Relaxing After Work, 2018; Tim Pitsiulak The First Lesson, 2012; Tim Pitsiulak Computer Generation, 2013; and Annie Pootoogook Father and Child at Kitchen Table, Cape Dorset, 2005-6, all from RBC’s collection.
The drawings will be shown alongside sculptures by contemporary artists from across the Canadian Arctic. Jutai Toonoo’s white granite sculpture entitled Tribute to Terry, is typical of his unique contemporary style which was often non-representational in form, and incorporated text, adding context. Natar Ungalaaq’s Transforming Shaman reflects traditional subject matter in a dynamic lens. Mathew Nuqingaq uses traditional materials to play off of traditional Inuit snow goggles – with a combination of traditional materials and silver. These artists, as many of the contemporary artists working in the North, are not just visual artists, but talented performers. Nuqingaq is also a stage actor and traditional drum dancer, and Ungalaaq is an actor best known for his leading role in ISUMA’s film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival
“The drawings presented at Masterpiece will be coming off the walls of RBC offices, and will certainly be missed by those who are used to living with these pieces,” says Corrie Jackson, senior curator for RBC in Toronto. “It’s wonderful to see these artists championed and engaged internationally.”
Jackson points out the works in the lounge reflect the wider conversation surrounding Inuit art and its canonization in the contemporary international art community. This year Isuma, the Inuit filming collective and production company will be representing Canada at the 58th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia 2019. RBC is the presenting sponsor of the Canadian Pavilion supporting the National Gallery of Canada.
There’s a deep sense of history that tethers the works together – Isuma at La Biennale di Venezia and the artists collected in the RBC Lounge at Masterpiece; an honesty that seeks to understand modern existence through the millennia of experience that comes before it, a life that endures and continues to exist around them.
“They’re not just walking away from their roots,” says Feheley. “Their starting point is the culture.”