A Far North Canadian Town Takes Inuit Art to New Levels
How does a tiny town at the top of the world become one of the most creative communities on the planet? With talent and skill handed down over generations, the Canadian village Kinngait or Cape Dorset is known as the capital of Inuit art.
It’s an isolated, fly-in community just south of the Arctic Circle, but art has been the community’s lifeblood for 60 years. With support from a locally-led arts cooperative and its Toronto-based marketing arm, Cape Dorset artists are taking Inuit art to the world stage.
William Huffman is the marketing manager for Dorset Fine Arts, the marketing and wholesale arm of the Cape Dorset-based West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative. The cooperative and its Toronto affiliate act as a liaison between Inuit artists and galleries and museums around the world. Huffman works with around 125 artists in a town of only 1,400 residents.
“This is why they talk about it being not only the capital of Inuit art but also one of the most creative communities in Canada. It’s remarkable. And this is all happening 2,500 kilometers north of Toronto in a place that is a fly-in only community, that is remote, that is arduous to live in, let alone to be a creator making contemporary prints, drawings and sculpture,” Huffman said.
Cape Dorset is located at the southern edge of Canada’s far-north Nunavut Territory at the southwest tip of Baffin Island. In 2006, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that a government study named Cape Dorset “Canada’s most artistic municipality” with more than 20 percent of the labor force working in the arts.
Allowing Creativity to Flourish
The story of Canada’s contemporary Inuit art scene is intertwined with the dark history of Canada’s resettlement of nomadic Inuits after World War II, Huffman says. As the Canadian government resettled the native people of the north into fixed communities, it turned its focus to building industry–and one of those industries was art.
The Ontario-born artist James Houston is credited with turning southern Canada on to Inuit art in the 40s and early 50s. Houston was hired by the Canadian government to develop the arts industry in Cape Dorset and built a studio art program over a decade, providing materials and training, expanding traditional carving practices and introducing drawing and printmaking to the community. The West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative was created in 1959 to help artists sell and promote their work. WBEC’s first generation included the renowned Inuit graphic artist Kenojuak Ashevak, who died in 2013, one of the best known Canadian artists in the world. The Canadian government put an image of her print “Owl’s Bouquet” on the country’s $10 bill in 2017.
Art studios have existed in other native communities but Cape Dorset’s is the longest-lived and best known, Huffman said, mostly thanks to strong community buy-in. The cooperative’s board of directors is made up of Inuit community members, offering a sense of local ownership and a stake in the success of its artists
“It was carefully constructed to allow for that creativity to flourish. On the other side, the ownership resides in the community so you’ve got a real point of pride in the history and development of art from Cape Dorset,” Huffman said. “The momentum has been maintained because the community really feels deeply embedded in that history…The artists are all self-trained or more accurately they’re mentored. One generation will mentor a future generation into making art.”
Dorset Fine Arts was launched in 1978 as the Toronto-based wholesale/marketing arm of WBEC. The company interfaces with galleries and museums around the world and makes sure Inuit artists have the materials and resources they need in their remote location. In 2018, WBEC opened a new high-tech studio facility and print shop–the Kenojuak Cultural Centre. And while COVID is changing how Huffman and his colleagues do business, in a normal year, he spends plenty of time in Cape Dorset working directly with artists.
“Part of it is for me to understand what the artists’ needs are and the only way to do that is to be in the studio with them,” Huffman said. “Seeing what goes on up there and understanding the needs of artists give me the ability to say these are the mechanisms, these are the platforms, these are the strategies we need to put into place.”
“Part of the Canadian Identity”
For longtime gallery owner Jean-Robert Wilhelmy, owner of the Inuit Art Zone in Quebec City, native art is a cultural touchstone for all Canadians.
“It’s part of the Canadian identity… As a Canadian, I feel that native art and native culture should be put forward and more integrated in the general public,” Wilhelmy said. “Working on the art scene helps that and helps people get exposed to different cultures.”
After graduating from Concordia University in Montreal with a degree in anthropology, Wilhelmy started working in galleries in the early 90s and immediately developed a passion for Inuit art. Wilhelmy launched the Inuit Art Zone in 2002 in Quebec City, working with Dorset Fine Arts and traveling to Cape Dorset to connect with the artists he represents in southeastern Canada.
Wilhelmy closed his storefront gallery earlier this year as COVID and skyrocketing rents in Quebec City led him to turn his focus to online sales but says demand for Inuit art is still strong. Wilhelmy says collectors often start with a more traditional wildlife piece and then get plugged into up-and-coming Inuit artists.
“With Inuit art, we often have more affordable small pieces. That’s what I’m focusing on,” Wilhelmy said. “Collectors often start with a small dancing bear. Then they learn about the culture, and they get to know the artists and go for the more collectible work.”
For Wilhelmy, Inuit artists to watch include GenX talent like the graphic artist and printmaker Ningiukulu Teevee and the sculptor Toonoo Sharky, whose detailed stone carvings bring a traditional medium into the 21st Century.
“It’s a really contemporary way of carving,” Wilhelmy said.
Beyond the Dancing Bear
Sharky and Teevee are part of a generation of Cape Dorset artists born in the 60s and 70s who are garnering international attention. With sophisticated sculptures, drawings and prints, this cohort is taking Inuit art beyond cultural nostalgia and straight onto the world stage.
Noted Cape Dorset artist Shuvinai Ashoona, known for colorful, dreamlike drawings, was the subject of a solo show at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Scotland earlier this year. And WBEC artist Qavavau Manumie’s work is included in an environmentally-focused show that opened last month at Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art. Dorset Fine Arts has also helped organize an annual creative residency for emerging Inuit artists at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.
“What we’re having to do is to move away from the dancing bear and the traditional igloo print,” Huffman said. “We’re trying to situate this new work in a very different discourse, and it’s within contemporary art…This is the excitement that we can build internationally…to be able to showcase some of these highly contemporary works in international cultural capitals. And people are blown away.”
More Artistic Fuel
Jan Mercker is a freelance journalist, wine lover and arts enthusiast. A former public relations pro and lifelong Francophile, she helped French Champagne houses navigate the U.S. media landscape leading up to Y2K and ran the wine and spirits department at the French Embassy Trade Office in New York before moving into a writing career. She’s an underachieving but enthusiastic tennis player and parent of teens.