Inuit Art

Songs are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices.

— Uqpingalik, Arviligjuarmiut

Art has always been an avenue for universally expressing complex ideas without the need to understand spoken language. The most popular mediums of Inuit creative expression are globally recognized as fine art. Stone, bone, and ivory carving, print making and fibre arts are the most widely practiced art forms among Inuit and these first gained international renown during the mid-century, the 1950s and 1960s.

In addition to the wide array of sanaugait – things made by hand- there is also a strong presence of performance art in Nunavut today. From the modern fusion of traditional throat singing with contemporary beats and lyrical harmonies made famous by artists like Tanya Tagaq and Beatrice Deer, to the mixture of Inuit culture with modern acrobatics by Artcirq – out of Igloolik.

What makes Inuit art so distinct is its ability to articulate cultural and historical significance with stunning artistic precision. Most traditional Inuit legends and mythical creatures were used as warnings and lessons, like fables of other cultures. In contrast, much of Inuit art offers a snapshot of everyday life that is presented from the perspective of the artist – where oral history may not have focused as much on such details, art provides a telling look into the lives of Inuit and the lives of their ancestors. 

In addition to expressions of daily life and activities, much of Inuit art also depicts what has always been most important in their lives – animals. Essential for all aspects of life, animals (as well as all things including inanimate objects) were thought to have inua – an inner soul- to which Inuit had to pay tremendous respect in return for the food, clothing, shelter and tools which were derived from the animal’s physical self. One could attribute the vibrancy of soapstone carvings to the amount of soul being poured into such work. The vision of the artist who is working with living stone to commemorate the sacrifice of the physical body, for the sustenance of a community is an awe inspiring concept.  

Inuit prints, drawings and carvings are of particular note for they are most often used to express the old concepts of shamanic practices and spirit lore that was prevalent prior to European contact. They are yet another avenue for a culture that is immersed in environmental connectivity, to share their world view with people who perceive the world in a different way.

The importance of art in Nunavut is intrinsically cultural. The relative isolation of Inuit communities encouraged each community to develop distinct specialties, often dependent on local materials, such as lyme grass and Eider duck down for the intricate baskets, blankets and clothing found in Sanikiluaq, or the world famous tapestries and textiles made in Pangnirtung. 

Famous artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak and Pudlo Pudlat depicted the transition from traditional life to living in settled communities along with non-Inuit. Contemporary artists like Annie Pootogook and Jamasie Pitseolak take that melding of modernism and tradition even further using the materials and techniques passed down to them through the thriving artistic communities they grew up in. It is these kinds of world-renowned artists who inspire so many other talented artists in their communities to express themselves to the wider world. Art magnifies voices of Inuit who might, on the surface, seem timid and unknowable to a wider assortment of people who would otherwise be a world away. 

The authenticity of such arts and crafts is important to both the artist and to the clients purchasing. The Government of Nunavut offers certified authenticity with the Authentic Nunavut Tag, Many of the communities have prominent art co-ops and their tags hold global credibility with collectors. The West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative of Cape Dorset is a well-known example with the Cape Dorset ‘chop’ on all authentic prints. The iconic Igloo Tag was developed early on, before Nunavut was established and is still used by some Nunavut artists.

Community profiles

Baker Lake

Baker Lake is famous as a major arts community, home to internationally renowned artists including Jessie Oonark, Simon Tookoome, and Marion Tuu’luq.   
 
The world famous Jessie Oonark Arts and Crafts Centre where community artists have work spaces for carving, print making, sewing and jewellery making and a store. The nearby Inuit Heritage Centre records, showcases and teaches the traditional Inuit culture and way of life

Taloyoak

Sewing is a vital part of traditional and contemporary Inuit culture. The handmade packing dolls from Taloyoak reflect and draw on a rich and complex culture that is over 4,000 years old. Based on the traditional clothes sewing skills of Inuit girls and women, ‘packing dolls’ were first designed by Peeteekootee Ugyak (Charlie) in Taloyoak. A distinctive feature of all the packing dolls is the ‘babies’ carried in the parkas. This reflects the Inuit tradition of ‘packing’ babies in a mother’s amauti – a unique mother’s parka with a special pouch (or ‘amaut’).

Kimmirut

Incredible artisans, while not as well known as their cousins in Cape Dorset, craft magnificent carving, wall hangings and jewellery - much of which uses gemstones unique to this area. Soper House, run by the Quliruakut Arts and Craft Society, is devoted to displaying and representing the work of local artists and craftspeople. 

Iqaluit

The Alianait Festival in late June/early July every year brings together musicians, performers and artists from around the North and adds artists and performers from around the world. Music, Theater, circus acts, storytelling and visual arts are all featured. 

Explore the vibrant arts scene: public carvings and graphics are incorporated into the buildings and landscape throughout the town; galleries display local and territorial arts and crafts, jewellery and local, unique clothing; the Legislative Assembly incorporates Inuit motifs in its modern design and showcases Inuit treasures; the exceptional Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum has regular, curated displays as well as a shop.

Cape Dorset

Around the world, Cape Dorset has become synonymous with Inuit Art. In Cape Dorset, in Inuktitut: Kinngait (Mountains) you can learn about the land, culture and history of Nunavut through stunning and thoughtful art. The iconic images, works on paper as well as carvings, have become world famous and were grown from the imagination of Cape Dorset artists. These images have made the beauty of the land and the people of Cape Dorset familiar globally with the many who love fine Inuit art. Essential Cape Dorset experiences include: 

  • Call ahead and visit the world famous West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, home studio of globally renowned artists such as Kenojoak Ashevak, Pitseolak Ashoona, Annie Pootoogook, Peter Pitseolak. See current artists in the studios and visit the store 

1953 marked the arrival of John Houston to the community. An artist and community builder, Mr. Houston is credited with helping to bring Inuit art to the attention of the world, initially at the worldwide. Many of the most famous Inuit artists, including Kenojoak, hail from Cape Dorset and worked in the studio that was build here and continues to provide studio space and resources to the local artists to this day. The local artists, with help from Mr. Houston founded the world famous West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in 1959 and the rest, as they say, is history. You will be able to step into one of the major creative capitals of Nunavut and watch Cape Dorset artist produce the visual art that makes them famous.

Igloolik

Millions of people from around the world were captivated by the stark beauty of the Igloolik area through the award-winning films of Igloolik-based Isuma Productions. These films tell many stories of Inuit life and the connections with Europeans, but what they subtly showcase is the tremendous cultural knowledge that resides in Igloolik. Hunters. Storytellers. Keepers of traditional knowledge.

Igloolik is a cultural centre in Nunavut. The film “Atarnarjuat” was produced and directed by local filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk using local actors and costume designers. This film depicted life before contact with Europeans and went on to win numerous awards, including the Golden Camera award at the Cannes Film Festival. This monumental work broke a trail for other local filmmakers and actors and Igloolik has become a “Hollywood” of Nunavut.

Igloolik is also home to the world-renowned “Artcirq” modern circus, which blends Inuit culture and modern circus techniques.

Pangnirtung

Visit the Uqqurmiut Centre to see the world famous artists at work and then shop for the lithographs, prints, sculpture and tapestries created here.

A must see for any visitor is the Uqqurmiut Centre. A hub for local artists, the Uqqurmiut Centre is home to world famous tapestries that beautifully depict the land and the people. Printmakers who are known around the world diligently work on this year’s collection. And, you can purchase a famous “Pang Hat”, a warm, crocheted hat that will immediately give you ‘street cred’ throughout the Arctic.

Sanikiluaq

It’s southern location makes Sanikiluaq unique, with the local art, food, language and culture being subtly different from other Nunavut communities. This provides you with a wonderful opportunity to see one of a kind art: haunting carvings made with the local argillite; fine traditional baskets woven using the local lyme grass; and, blankets and clothing are available made using down and feathers from the local Eider ducks

Pond Inlet

Pond inlet is the home of the Tununiq Arsarnit Theatre Group. This original Inuit theatre group was founded in 1987 and has been developing and performing for over 20 years. The Group develops its plays and performances by consensus, involving elders as actors and writers. Inuit language, culture, legends, myths and the wisdom of the elders are central to all the plays developed.

 

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What's on your travel bucket list? Experience the rare and unique arctic wildlife. Take a ride on a dog sled across ancient Inuit hunting trails. Witness centuries-old traditions in modern time. All of this is possible in Nunavut.