Dorset Seen Catalogue
Carleton University Art Gallery
Dorset Seen is the newly minted catalogue for the 2013 exhibit that explored 60 years of contemporary Inuit art at the Carleton University Art Gallery (CUAG). Co-curated by CUAG Director Sandra Dyck and Leslie Boyd, curator and former Marketing Director for the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, the primary art buyer for Kinngait (Cape Dorset), NU, the exhibition and catalogue are dedicated to the community’s self-representation throughout six decades of radical upheaval and colonization. Taken as a whole, the selected drawings and sculptures narrate a very local and specific continuum. Boyd, who was a long-time Kinngait resident, opens the catalogue with the essay “Kinngarmiut Taututtangit ‘Dorset Seen’”, followed by interviews with artists Tim Pitsiulak (1967–2016) and Ningiukulu Teevee. Her essay casts an introductory net over a vast and troubling history, but, in its brevity, risks minimizing the systematic trauma of federal programs. For example, residential schools are summarized in one paragraph as “a sad chapter”, and the complicated arrival of the art market is condensed as “the Canadian government’s plan to raise the standards of living amongst Inuit.” Despite providing readers with a solid foundation in the nuances of Kinngait’s evolution as a major artmaking centre, the essay would have benefitted from more pointedly addressing these complex periods, which would have better grounded the reader for the subsequent critiques in the remainder of the catalogue. In contrast, Boyd’s fond conversation with long-time collaborator Ningiukulu Teevee illuminates warm personal and specific details about Teevee’s life as a daughter, grandmother and illustrator of the Governor General Literary Award– nominated book Alego (Groundwood Books: Toronto, 2009). In her interview with Tim Pitsiulak, the striking centrepiece is his 2009 drawing Carver’s Income, in which a carver walks atop the blade of a giant grinder in a perpetual cycle of art production, with garish yellow plastic hardware store bags weighing heavily in one hand and slung over the other shoulder. The grinder’s cord winds, curves and plugs into a giant socket in his house, generating heat, electricity and rent in a frank and poignant statement about the reliance of the community on the colonial art market—a fraught relationship that Dyck further contextualizes in her subsequent essay. “Standard Deviations” is critical and direct, providing a rich, nuanced history of the unequal symbiosis between Kinngait artists and the colonial art market and criticizes federal social programs that, starting in the 1930s, advanced commercial objectives at the expense of Inuit communities. Dyck
provides poignant case studies of artists like Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, ON, RCA (1927–2013), one of the community’s first exported artists, whose vivid, absorbing drawings, such as Bird With Spirit (1967), were titled to please “the white man,” at the same time as her family and home life were being destroyed. Ashevak, Dyck writes, barely weathered the painful years referred to as “Nunalinnguqtitauliqtilluta,” or “the time when we were actively [by outside force] formed into communities.” Dyck also traces the emergence of exploitative national policies from an ideology of primitivism–a prejudice that has also been nurtured in the the art world–and describes the callous conundrum of imperial appetites: in 1965 the Globe and Mail quoted that Inuit art was “over”, because Western contact had forced it to evolve too much. For that reason it was a defiant and risky act to break these rules. Dyck illuminates the courage of bold autobiographical works, like This Had Touched My Life (1991-92) by Oviloo Tunnillie, RCA (1949–2014) or Paulassie Pootoogook’s (1927–2006) Honda ATV (1986), whose experimental gambles forced open new chapters of contemporary Inuit art. Dyck quotes Pootoogook, who describes how difficult it was to sell any carving but animals, a demand that he boldly defies in the aformentioned work, honing the sleek green and black steatite to faithfully reproduce the entire quad bike from its bevelled grips to its dimpled leather saddle. Dyck’s rare omissions are also worth considering. There is a notable silence around the public response and racism following the death of Annie Pootoogook (1969–2016), whose meteoric career occupies a key section of the catalogue. Its omission must have been a wrought decision, but for a catalogue that thoughtfully curates what must be “seen,” it is an odd absence. Overall, however, Dorset Seen is an important contribution to a burgeoning body of critical artwriting on the history of Kinngait, a field of study that Dyck acknowledges is still in its early stages. Dyck and Boyd’s writings, and in particular the artist interviews, therefore, offer a promising start and one that will also, ideally, continue to foreground the voices and scholarship of Inuit artists and art historians to come.
Dorset Seen is an important contribution to a burgeoning body of critical artwriting on the history of Kinngait, a field of study that Dyck acknowledges is still in its early stages.
The cover of Dorset Seen featuring Shuvinai Ashoona’s Untitled (People lining up to sell artwork), 2012