Cape Dorset, Nunavut: We’re walking down a rocky path in Cape Dorset when we unknowingly bump into one of Canada’s most exciting young Inuit artists. The teenager catches up to us to ask whether we’d like to buy the white marble inuksuk he’s carrying. “Sure,” I say, and start fishing for some twenties while throwing out a few questions.
His name is David Pudlak. He’s 14 and has been carving since he was 11. His dad taught him. Inuksuit are his favourite. He finished this one, about as long as my hand, in about half an hour. Oh, and he his work has been shown in museums in London and Barcelona. “What now?” I ask, a little surprised. “Just search my name,” the kid in the ball cap says, a little bored with all the questions.
You don’t have to search far to find a long list of accomplished Inuit artists in Cape Dorset, an ‘Art Capital of Canada’ and we are lucky to meet a few during our afternoon here. We’ve arrived by zodiac from One Ocean Expedition’s RCGS Resolute, one of many excursions we take in ten days of exploring art, culture and wildlife on south Baffin Island.
At Cape Dorset’s new Kenojuak Cultural Centre and Print Shop, we meet Shuvinai Ashoona. The famous and famously shy artist holds up a pencil drawing that’s almost as big as she is. We’d received a crash course on Ashoona, her cousin, the late Annie Pootoogook and other Inuit artists during a presentation on board the Resolute by Dr. Nancy Campbell, a leading curator of and expert in Inuit art. “They create from their lived experience,” she says. “They are narrators of their community.”
Pootoogook, one of the first to include violence and other social issues in her drawings, “really broke the glass ceiling of Inuit art to be accepted in the mainstream of contemporary art, which allowed other artists access to that,” says Campbell. Pootoogook died in Ottawa in 2016 and is buried in Cape Dorset’s rocky graveyard overlooking the water. The cemetery, Campbell says, is a “lesson in Canadian art history.”
In 1958 a southern print maker, James Houston, helped set up the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative in Cape Dorset. Supported by the federal government, it bought every piece produced by Inuit artists. “It was started as an economic engine for communities,” says Campbell. “The first generation of artists was given a booklet with ideas of things to draw.” (One of the suggestions was a totem pole, a strange choice given there are no trees around here). Artists riffed off what they knew—the land, people and wildlife. Their drawings were turned into prints that sold in the south (such as Kenojuak Ashevak’s iconic Enchanted Owl).
Now, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection is digitizing 100,000 Inuit works drawn between 1959 and 1988. In the Resolute’s presentation room, we hear that young people in Cape Dorset (many descendants of those early artists) are employed to write tags and alt text (such as: “Imaginary scene depicting two mermaids braiding each other’s hair”) so people can access the archive online. When the site, Iningat Ilaglit, goes live later this year (with a low bandwith option for the north), it will be the first time many Inuit have seen the early drawings.
Culture rooted in nature
At Cape Dorset’s Kenojuak Centre, teenagers act as interpreters as elder Novalinga Kingwatsiak demonstrates games with string and seal bones she played as a girl. Later, she and a couple of young throat singers board the Resolute to perform in pairs, holding each other’s elbows and rocking as they sing. “It was a game, because that’s all they had,” explains guide Silaqqi Alariaq. While men were off hunting for months on end, women had many “cold dark nights,” she says. “The singing was passed down. Each community has its own speed and sounds.” The singers try to throw each other off and whoever laughs first, loses. The songs mimic the sounds they hear in their world—geese landing in the spring, the breath of sled dogs racing, a saw cutting through ice for igloos.
We see a lot of the Inuit’s natural world in our ten days in the Arctic. From the ship’s deck, we spot caribou, seals and a whale breeching. We walk around a few archeological sites, watch a million thick- billed murre nesting on massive cliffs and circumnavigate icebergs. We cruise past a polar bear on an ice floe, watch another one swim between pans of ice and see a third stalk walrus lounging on the (aptly named) Walrus Island. We sit in zodiacs, binoculars (or cameras) glued to our eyes as the bear approaches, sizes up the (much larger) walrus and retreats. Maybe, I think, the bear is just checking that the pantry is full.
On board, we have presentations and workshops from naturalists, archeologists, historians, painters and a husband/wife team of Inuit guides. Candace Pedersen, who has traditional tattoos on her forehead, arms and fingers, explains that Inuit women would mark their accomplishments—“each piece of clothing they sewed, each time they skinned a fox”—with a tattoo. “You had to be brave to get one,” she says. “Bringing back these tattoos is very powerful.”
Another day, her husband Angulalik points out sled dogs running around on little islands on our way into the tiny community of Kimmirut. Rather than tying the dogs up all summer, he explains, they’re taken to the islands with fresh water and seal meat delivered by boat for dinner. On shore, we pile out of the zodiacs, enjoy bannock and barbequed char and watch men compete in muskox fights (wrestling) and mouth tug of war (you sit side by side and hook your finger in the other guy’s mouth and pull—there is groaning).
I make a quick trip to the bustling Northern Store and am greeted warmly by every single person. “Welcome and thank you for coming” a man grins while pushing his shopping card past laundry detergent that costs $41. Outside, artists are selling carvings, little seal skin ookpiks and drawings. I buy an ookpik and two drawings, one of blackberries another of a camp stove. They don’t get many customers in Kimmirut.
Over in Cape Dorset, shoppers visit a private gallery, the Kenojuak Centre and, on this day, the community centre where a dozen or so artists are displaying their work on plastic tables. Still others, like David Pudlat, show you their work as you walk around town. “I did my first inuksuk with a file and I sold it, so I started doing more,” Pudlak tells me, echoing the practicality of generations of Inuit artists. “In the past they used to make inuksuit so they don’t get lost—‘if I can see this inuksuk, (I know) we’re in this place.’”
The Resolute drops us off at Iqaluit and I leave south Baffin Island with a tiny bit of Inuit art and a ton more knowledge about the people who make it. Every time I look at the inuksuk that I bought on a rocky path, I’ll remember the resilient and creative people I met and this rugged, beautiful place they’ve called home for thousands of years.