Stu­dio Visit

A new cul­tural cen­tre in Cape Dorset, Nu­navut, is shap­ing the next wave of Inuit art

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Cather­ine Dean

A new cul­tural cen­tre in Cape Dorset, Nu­navut, is shap­ing the next wave of Inuit art

The view was un­bro­ken white for most of the flight from Iqaluit to Cape Dorset, Nu­navut, with only the black-and-white mo­saic of sea ice an­nounc­ing our ap­proach to Dorset Is­land. We landed just as the skies be­gan to lower, as though the land­scape were grad­u­ally be­ing erased. The one-room air­port was crowded with peo­ple greet­ing friends and fam­ily while a team of young hockey play­ers waited hope­fully for a flight out to a tour­na­ment — the feel­ing of an arena change room was com­pounded by their equip­ment bags clut­ter­ing the floor. I was in­vited to be part of a small del­e­ga­tion that vis­ited Cape Dorset—kin­ngait in Inuk­ti­tut—a ham­let of about 1,400 peo­ple just off of Baf­fin Is­land, this past spring. Our group was there to pre­view the Keno­juak Cul­tural Cen­tre (KCC), which is set to for­mally open its doors in Septem­ber. The build­ing is named for the late Keno­juak Ashe­vak, per­haps the most iconic of Cape Dorset’s many artists to have pro­duced work at the West Baf­fin Eskimo Co-op­er­a­tive. The WBEC has two parts: an all-pur­pose re­tail store, sell­ing ev­ery­thing from gro­ceries to snow ma­chines, and Kin­ngait Stu­dios, the world-fa­mous print­mak­ing and draw­ing fa­cil­ity. (Both are re­ferred to as “the coop,” pro­nounced as a quick quap by lo­cals.) The cen­tre pro­vides Kin­ngait Stu­dios with a fit­tingly im­pres­sive new home, re­plac­ing the build­ings the artists and print­mak­ers have worked out of for decades. Com­mer­cial art pro­duc­tion be­gan in Cape Dorset in the 1950s, when James Hous­ton, an artist and a civil ad­min­is­tra­tor for the re­gion, en­cour­aged Inuit in and around Cape Dorset to make carv­ings, draw­ings, and prints to be sold in south­ern mar­kets. The co-op, a ma­jor­ity Inu­itrun busi­ness, be­gan in the late 1950s, and its first an­nual limited-edi­tion print col­lec­tion was re­leased in 1959. Funded by art sales, the co-op now pro­vides artists with ma­te­ri­als, stu­dio space, and pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties, as well as ex­hi­bi­tion

and mar­ket­ing sup­port through Dorset Fine Arts, its Toronto out­post es­tab­lished in 1978. Over the past four years, the KCC cap­i­tal cam­paign, a col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­fort be­tween the ham­let and the co-op, raised more than $13 mil­lion from cor­po­rate, gov­ern­ment, and pri­vate sources, enough for the build­ing as well as an en­dow­ment for op­er­a­tions. Although there were pre­vi­ous at­tempts to build a new cen­tre, this is the first time the com­mu­nity has had sub­stan­tial sup­port from ma­jor south­ern in­sti­tu­tions and phi­lan­thropists. The new cen­tre comes at a time of high vis­i­bil­ity for Inuit art, when Inuit are in­creas­ingly shap­ing the way their cul­ture is pre­sented and shared with the world. The Art Gallery of On­tario’s sum­mer ex­hi­bi­tion, Tu­nir­ru­sian­git (“their gifts” or “what they gave” in Inuk­ti­tut), which pairs the work of Keno­juak Ashe­vak with that of her nephew, Tim Pit­si­u­lak, who passed away in 2016, has been led by a team of Inuit artist-cu­ra­tors. The in­au­gu­ral pro­gram­ming of the Win­nipeg Art Gallery’s new Inuit Art Cen­tre will also be di­rected by Inuit cu­ra­tors and artists. And the Isuma artist col­lec­tive is rep­re­sent­ing Canada at next year’s Venice Bi­en­nale, the first time art by Inuit will be shown in the Canada pav­il­ion. The KCC, in con­trast, cel­e­brates Inuit art in the place where it is made. While it is in­tended as a des­ti­na­tion for art col­lec­tors, cu­ra­tors, and tourists, the cen­tre’s pri­mary goal is to serve the com­mu­nity. In the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, gov­ern­ment poli­cies forced in­tense and of­ten trau­matic changes to the Inuit way of life, as fam­i­lies went from liv­ing on the land to liv­ing in set­tle­ments. The com­mu­nity hopes that pro­gram­ming at the new fa­cil­i­ties can be­gin to counter decades of cul­tural loss. The new KCC will be a place for Cape Dorset to hold on to and cel­e­brate its own art, artists, and cul­ture.

The KCC is a long, royal-blue box on a plateau over­look­ing the town, above the old co-op of­fices and stu­dios. Bill Ritchie, mas­ter printer and Kin­ngait Stu­dios man­ager for the past twenty-eight years, gave me a tour of the pris­tine fa­cil­i­ties, de­signed by ar­chi­tec­ture firm Evoq in part­ner­ship with Iqaluit­based Panaq De­sign. The co-op’s half of the build­ing is com­posed mainly of a se­ries of stu­dios — one for lithog­ra­phy, pro­duc­ing let­ter­press, and etch­ing; a separate space for mak­ing stone­cuts; and an­other for draw­ing — all sep­a­rated by glass walls to al­low for clear lines of sight from end to end. (The other half of the build­ing, with a pub­lic gallery and space for events, is man­aged by the ham­let.) North-fac­ing win­dows run the length of the stu­dios, fill­ing the space with light dif­fused by the snow now swirling out­side. Dur­ing my visit, there was

a quiet ca­ma­raderie to the place, the soft mut­ter of Inuk­ti­tut on the ra­dio in the back­ground as the print­mak­ers worked, some­times con­sult­ing each other but mostly in si­lence. It was a Tues­day, one of two days a week when artists come to sell draw­ings to the co-op. Some draw­ings be­come the ba­sis for prints; artists are paid for each step of the print­ing process and re­ceive roy­al­ties from sales. Pad­loo Sa­mayualie brought in a small, pre­cise draw­ing of hy­dro poles and wires against a clear sky. She is known for her draw­ings of local land­scapes, ar­chi­tec­ture, and scenes from her trav­els to shows and res­i­den­cies: the Mon­treal air­port, a plane on the tar­mac in Yel­lowknife, high-rise build­ings in New York City. An­other draw­ing of Sa­mayualie’s — a small, un­set­tling im­age of green la­tex-gloved hands hold­ing a large heart (based on the Health Canada heart-dis­ease warn­ing from a cig­a­rette pack), out­lined in thick black like the lead­ing of stained glass — hung in a small gallery across a long cen­tral hall­way from the stu­dios. The gallery, where artists and print­mak­ers some­times hang new work or projects in progress, also holds art by Shuvinai Ashoona, Ningiukulu Teevee, and Saimaiyu Ake­suk. Some of the most ad­mired artists now work­ing in Cape Dorset, their art does not al­ways fit eas­ily into what is thought of as the tra­di­tional Cape Dorset style, which fea­tures strong graphic com­po­si­tions and of­ten ab­stracted im­ages of an Inuit way of life that mostly pre­dates liv­ing in set­tle­ments. Inuit sto­ries and val­ues and the im­por­tance of spend­ing time on the land—hunt­ing, fish­ing, and clam dig­ging, for ex­am­ple—still fea­ture promi­nently in Cape Dorset art to­day. But this gen­er­a­tion of artists also does not shy away from con­fronting is­sues such as al­co­holism and high rates of sui­cide — ef­fects of colo­nial­ism that plague Inuit com­mu­ni­ties. Although stylis­ti­cally dif­fer­ent, the work of these new artists con­tin­ues the tra­di­tion of strong women artists in Cape Dorset that be­gan with Keno­juak Ashe­vak. “Her art is what made a way for us,” Teevee told me.

Com­mu­nity el­ders have long ad­vised that a cul­tural cen­tre should pro­vide far more than stu­dios and gallery space. Some have passed away in re­cent years, but their mes­sage was clear: the cen­tre should ac­tively help pre­serve Inuit knowl­edge. “They kept say­ing, ‘Work hard...get this cen­tre go­ing, since that’s the only way you’re go­ing to show your history to the out­side world and to your chil­dren,’” el­der Jimmy Manning, a pho­tog­ra­pher, for­mer art buyer and for­mer man­ager of Kin­ngait Stu­dios, and cur­rent man­ager of the co-op re­tail store, told me. Pre­vi­ously, given that there was no ex­hi­bi­tion venue in town, the best of the com­mu­nity’s draw­ings and carv­ings were shipped south with no op­por­tu­nity for the com­mu­nity to ap­pre­ci­ate the work. That’s in part why the KCC’S open­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, launch­ing Septem­ber 5, will be the largest show­ing of work by Ashe­vak in the Arc­tic — all pulled from the co-op’s vast ar­chive, which is housed in Dorset Fine Arts; the Mcmichael Art Gallery in Klein­burg, On­tario; and Cape Dorset.

Ku­maar­juk Pii, a ham­let coun­cil­lor who also teaches Inuk­ti­tut in the ele­men­tary school, hopes that, be­yond art ex­hi­bi­tions, the cen­tre’s pro­gram­ming will be holis­tic in its ap­proach to Inuit cul­ture. There is space for in­door ac­tiv­i­ties such as sewing, throat sing­ing, and sto­ry­telling, but Pii hopes the cen­tre could also house equip­ment for hunt­ing and fish­ing — ac­tiv­i­ties that can be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive — and host pro­grams on tra­di­tional Inuit food. “Some young peo­ple don’t eat coun­try food, they’re so used to eat­ing store-bought food,” she said. “So they could learn how to cook it, how to live on the land. What bet­ter place than the cul­ture cen­tre to teach it?” Louisa Parr, the new man­ager of the KCC, plans to or­ga­nize reg­u­lar meet­ings of town el­ders at the cen­tre, so com­mu­nity mem­bers and youth in par­tic­u­lar can come to hear their sto­ries and learn from their ex­pe­ri­ences. She hopes au­dio and video record­ings of the gath­er­ings will be stored in a pub­licly ac­ces­si­ble ar­chive. Pii sug­gested that the cen­tre could also of­fer le­gal and other prac­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion for artists. “I want them to know what their rights are,” she said. “They may not know that they are be­ing taken ad­van­tage of.” Be­cause quick money is im­por­tant in a place where prices for gro­ceries and other ba­sic sup­plies can be up to three times the na­tional av­er­age, artists some­times sell di­rectly to deal­ers, who may then re­sell the work for much higher prices, with none of that profit go­ing to the artist. “They need to learn the value of them­selves. That they can make it in life.” Pii was born on the land—away from a per­ma­nent set­tle­ment—but her fam­ily was forced to set­tle in Cape Dorset when she was al­most six. “I don’t know all of the Inuit way,” she told me. “I know I miss a lot of my tra­di­tion be­cause of the cul­ture change that hap­pened rapidly. And now, with the cul­ture cen­tre, we’ll be able to pre­serve what is left.”

The day our del­e­ga­tion was sup­posed to leave, the town got snowed in again, but by mid­night, the sky had cleared and the north­ern lights were flick­er­ing faintly, gather­ing briefly into ver­ti­cal bands then break­ing up into gen­tle green waves. The next morn­ing, it looked like we would be able to fly out. It was quiet at the air­port by then, since the hockey play­ers, snowed in since the day we ar­rived, were given pri­or­ity and left on the first flight out. Cheryl from First Air cir­cu­lated with a pot of cof­fee and a gi­ant tub of pow­dered Cof­fee-mate. Once our plane ar­rived, we watched as the cargo was un­loaded by hand — cases of Coke to make up for a des­per­ate short­fall in town (it had been months since the last de­liv­ery), along with con­struc­tion sup­plies and draw­ing ma­te­ri­als for the co-op — as the weather grad­u­ally wors­ened. Cheryl rushed us across the tar­mac as soon as the plane was ready, and as we took off, the land­scape dis­ap­peared into the snow.

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op­po­site The Keno­juak Cul­tural Cen­tre, which was funded with $8 mil­lion from the fed­eral and ter­ri­to­rial gov­ern­ments, $3 mil­lion from pri­vate and cor­po­rate do­na­tions, and nearly $80,000 raised by the com­mu­nity. above The old West Baf­fin Eskimo Co-op­er­a­tive build­ings in Cape Dorset, Nu­navut.

top Print­ing blocks on dis­play in the print­ers’ break room in one of the old build­ings.

above The stone used to print Ningiukulu Teevee’s Deep in Thought, 2018, which is in­cluded in this year’s Cape Dorset An­nual Print Col­lec­tion. op­po­site top In the new stu­dio, mas­ter printer Niveak­sie Quvinaq­tu­liaq works on a Saimaiyu Ake­suk print. op­po­site bot­tom The stu­dio uses a rare set of Inuk­tut syl­labic type. The wbec logo, de­signed by one of the stu­dio’s early graphic artists, is in the third com­part­ment from the left.

above Some draw­ings are stored in the archives; most are sent to Dorset Fine Arts and distributed to autho­rised gal­leries in Canada and abroad.

op­po­site Shuvinai Ashoona works on a lithog­ra­phy plate in the new draw­ing stu­dio.

above A door frame from the old co-op is marked with the heights of staff, visi­tors, and artists, in­clud­ing the late Tim Pit­si­u­lak.

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