“The Hunter Artist, Tim Pitsiulak of Cape Dorset, Nunavut” by Sarah Milroy | The Walrus | July 2012

See on Scoop.itNunavut

The Hunter Artist

In Cape Dorset, Nunavut, a new generation is redefining Inuit art, preserving northern traditions as it adapts to southern ways of life. One of these artists is Tim Pitsiulak

By Sarah Milroy

· Photography and artworks by Tim Pitsiulak

Visual Art · From the July/August 2012 magazine


Artmaking in Cape Dorset has prehistoric roots, from nomadic Inuit who expressed their refined aesthetic sensibilities for millennia in tiny carvings, toggles, and amulets in bone and ivory — objects that connected them to the spiritual realm and to the animals they hunted — and in the striking textile appliqués with which the women adorned traditional clothing. These designs inspired adventurer James Houston to persuade the Canadian government to fund a pilot project in Cape Dorset in the 1950s, encouraging carving on a larger scale, and introducing Japanese-style printmaking to a people who were just beginning to move into fixed settlements. By 1960, Houston was moving on, the mantle of leadership was passed to Terry Ryan, and Kinngait was placed under the direction of the newly created West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, one of many such co-ops set up across the North under the direction of Inuit leaders.

For Inuit, the co-ops provided employment and hope, but Ottawa had its own reasons for encouraging permanent settlements. The Cold War had charged the Arctic politically, making it a buffer zone between Communism and democracy. Conscription of the nomadic Inuit into fixed communities enabled the federal government to assert the existence of an Indigenous population in the region, even if that citizenry was to be identified by tracking numbers. In the span of a few decades, the nomadic way of life was lost, and Canada’s claim on the North was secured.

Meanwhile, the country was looking to brand itself at home and abroad, and Inuit art became the iconography. Ookpiks and inukshuks were sold in airports and gift shops from coast to coast. Inuit prints graced our stamps; Kenojuak’s The Enchanted Owl, on the 1970 six-cent stamp, was embraced as a signifier of our identity as an emerging nation, with accents both primeval and modern. Inuit carvings served as the stuff of corporate ritual among Bay Street qallunaat, who swapped bulk-buy soapstone dancing bears and walruses at closing dinners.

Some of this art was outstanding: Kenojuak’s rapturous depictions of animals and supernatural beings; or Kananginak Pootoogook’s renderings of caribou and other creatures, works that vividly capture the specific characteristics of each species. Some of this art, however, was repetitive and formulaic. Still, markets expanded at home and internationally, directors of the West Baffin Co-op came and went (James Houston; Terry Ryan, whose forty-eight years of service ended in 2008; and a succession of other white managers), but the experiment has remained the same: to broker a relationship between a south enraptured by the “idea of North” (to borrow Glenn Gould’s famous phrase), and an Inuit community struggling to find its way forward and maintain its cultural identity. The resulting phenomenon is unique: with a population of 1,363, Cape Dorset may be the only community in the world where art constitutes the leading industry.

See on walrusmagazine.com


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