Tradition's New Line

An Exhibition Of Inuit Drawings Shows How Three Artists Have Coped With Cultural Upheaval

Janet Kigusiuq is looking at her framed drawings, reminiscing a little in her native Inuktitut, apologizing a little, too. A resident of Baker Lake, she is clearly uncomfortable in the heat of a Vancouver summer: even in this air-conditioned gallery, she is flushed and perspiring. Still, it's her art, not her sweat, that's she's deprecating. She never believed she had what it took to be an artist, she says. Speaking through an interpreter, she reports that she reluctantly began making prints, drawings, and wall hangings at the insistence of her mother, the renowned Inuit artist Jessie Oonark (1906-1985). "I had made some dolls, and my mother said if I could make dolls, I could draw," Kigusiuq recalls. Even now, at the age of 78, she remains unconvinced of her talent.

Still, she recounts the myths, legends, and bursts of imagination that inform her work. There are images here of a man transforming into a bird; of a woman who took a dog for a husband; and of two cannibalistic creatures with human faces, hairy bodies, and long claws, devouring a pale-skinned person while a large bird of prey looks on hungrily. There are images, too, of day-to-day Inuit life, past and present. One of her untitled works, executed in coloured pencil, depicts four lines of drying fish hanging in front of a vividly patterned landscape. Kigusiuq, who was born in an isolated area of the Keewatin District west of Hudson's Bay, grew up on the land and recalls helping her mother and grandmother prepare the small, white fish, whose name she knows as pipsi.

As with so many Inuit in the middle of the last century, she and her family were forced into permanent settlements by famine and the collapse of their traditional way of life. With the support of the federal government and newly established artists' cooperatives, some Inuit began producing sculpture and prints for a southern market, to take the place of hunting and trapping as a means of support and survival.

Kigusiuq recently flew to Vancouver to join two other Inuit artists, Kananginak Pootoogook of Cape Dorset and Nick Sikkuark of Kugaaruk (formerly Pelly Bay) for the opening of the exhibition, Arctic Visions. Curated by Robert Kardosh and subtitled Inuit Drawings From Northern Canada, it features 120 works by six artists, and runs until August 30 at the Marion Scott Gallery.

For many years, Inuit drawing was seen as inferior to sculpture and subsidiary to printmaking, Kardosh observes. Since the 1960s, northern artists have sold their original drawings to the print cooperatives in communities as far-flung as Holman, Pangnirtung, and Baker Lake. Some drawings would be chosen for development as stonecuts, etchings, or engravings, but the majority were stored away in drawers, unused. "Drawing has been under-recognized in the Inuit art field, partly because there's been no mechanism for publicizing it," Kardosh says.

Over the past 15 years, however, they've been pulled out for scrutiny by art historians, curators, and collectors. "These incredible bodies of drawings in the archives of the different co-ops have given scholars great resources to work with," Kardosh explains. Although he's an admirer of the best Inuit prints, he personally responds to the pulse and immediacy of the drawings. "There's an energy to the drawn line," he says. "It has a different quality from the prints."

Recent interest in the medium suits the 61-year-old Sikkuark, who, three years ago, was forced for health reasons to give up a successful career as a carver in whalebone and stone. At the encouragement of Kardosh, he's been drawing, instead--the only artist in the central Arctic region of Kitikmeot to work two-dimensionally. Some of his sculptures possess a frightening, supernatural character. His drawings, too, may be disturbing or fantastical, with playful elements.

Sikkuark is especially interested in depicting shamans and evil spirits, of which there are many here: disembodied shaman heads soaring like comets through the night sky; more shaman heads, launching themselves from the sea in a spray of water droplets; a tiny evil spirit, standing on a piece of wood and commanding half a dozen moons that shine like searchlights on the horizon. "A shaman has got a powerful spirit," Sikkuark says in the measured English he acquired as a Bible student in Winnipeg in the early 1960s. "I like to draw the power of the shaman."

Of the three visiting artists, Kananginak embraces the most literal approach to the visible world. A sculptor, former printerstonecutter, and first president of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, he is best known for his carefully observed depictions of wildlife, including the drawings of owls, ravens, falcon, and geese on view here. "I started making little human figures as a young boy and sold them to the Hudson's Bay Company," Kananginak recalls through an interpreter. "That's what started the process."

Born in 1935 at Ikirasaq, a small hunting camp on the southwest coast of Baffin Island, he too grew up on the land, and supported himself as a trapper before moving to Cape Dorset in 1957. Recently, he has produced a series of highly detailed drawings of remembered and re-imagined scenes of contact between Inuit and kadlunak ("white people"), including an image of a bespectacled, pipe-smoking Roman Catholic priest who was called Iglalikutaaq, "Tall Guy With Glasses". Each work is inscribed by the artist in syllabics, and each includes astonishingly detailed renderings of clothing, tools, and accoutrements.

"The Inuit did not know what was about to occur," Kananginak intones, reading his own description of a scene in which a Scottish whaler whoops it up with an inebriated Inuit hunter. "They have gone through [a] drastic transition since the kadlunak first arrived. Drastic changes." Like Kigusiuq, Kananginak is sweating in the unaccustomed heat. He isn't apologizing for his art, however. Not at all.