The first peoples to inhabit the Canadian Arctic journeyed from Alaska at least 4000 years ago. Figurative art began to be produced around 1600 years ago with the creation of carved animals, birds and humans in the Cape Dorset region. Since they were a nomadic people, these were mostly small sculptures and works of art that served either a utilitarian purpose or spiritual function.
Increased interaction between Aboriginals and Europeans began in the sixteenth century through the arrival of whalers and missionaries. This frequency of contact resulted in Inuit artists experimenting with and adopting new art-making techniques. Westerners would trade and purchase Inuit work, most commonly objects made of ivory, and subsequently their work began to travel around the world.
It was not until the twentieth century that the significance and beauty of Inuit art production became fully recognized and supported by the Canadian government. This can be credited to Toronto artist James Houston, who in 1948 organized the first exhibition of work by Inuit sculptors in Montreal and thereby influenced the spread of national interest in this art. With the help of the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Canadian Handicraft Guild, the federal government set up co-operatives in the Arctic to market and sell Inuit art throughout Canada and abroad. It was not until 1967 with the Montreal World’s Fair or Expo ‘67, which showcased Inuit sculpture and prints in the Canadian Pavilion, that an international attention in Inuit art began to develop substantially. Contemporary Inuit artists continue to create art as a way to supplement their income, and to preserve and record their traditions and legends.
While stone is the main material used to create Inuit sculptures, many will often include inlay of bone, antlers or ivory. The most common types are soapstone or serpentine, siltstone, argillite, dolomite, and quartz, which are mined in the Arctic. There is great diversity of stone based on region, as the choice of stone depends on local availability.The colour of stone varies from beautiful shades of grey and green to dark black. Since Inuit sculptors create work of various different sizes, smaller works are often fashioned from the sections cut away to produce larger works.
Carving skills and techniques have been passed down through generations and acquired by watching others carving. Most sculptures today are made with hand-powered tools or small-power tools. The roughing out of the sculpture is often done with saws, axes, hammers and chisels. The addition finer details and finishing of the sculpture is done with files, steel wool, sandpaper, penknives and nails. Due to short supplies, artists often have to travel great distances to quarry new stones. Quarrying is normally done during the winter as it is easier to transport the stone over the ice.
Regional styles have developed depending on the local stone and on prominent carvers who have left a lasting influence on their community. Some artists adhere to a naturalistic depiction while others use a more stylized and abstract approach. The method of carving and the degree to which the sculptures are carved and polished are also affected by regional preference, as some regions prefer to produce highly polished and detailed works while others choose to maintain the natural characteristics of the stone and therefore have a more rudimentary or “unfinished” style to their carvings.
For more information on regional styles please see “Inuit Communities.”
Inuit artists are inspired by their everyday life and the environment of the Arctic. They are particularly drawn to representing the animals, birds and marine life in this region. Popular subjects are the bear (walking or dancing), walrus, seal, musk ox and owls due to their prevalence in the Arctic and importance to Inuit sustenance and survival. These animals are also spiritual significant to the Inuit, as many legends tell of humans being reincarnated as animals, and shamans taking of the form of animals in order to talk to the spirits. The qualities of the animals: their perseverance, skill at hunting, tracking, and camouflage, are all traits that the Inuit admire, praise and wish to emulate through the creation of their art.
The inukshuk is another significant symbol of Northern life. Built by piling rocks in a way that resembles the human form, Inukshuks are used as guides, signposts and territorial markings, and also can also help with hunting. Anyone who has travelled the Arctic can appreciate how vast and lonely the far North can be. In this environment, the sighting of an Inukshuk brings a tremendous feeling of comfort and ease by knowing that someone else has passed this way before. Some younger contemporary artists have begun to experiment by depicting modern life in their communities, representing objects such as snowmobiles, helicopters and games such as checkerboards in stone and in print.
When James Houston, the Toronto Artist responsible to creating an interest in Inuit Art, moved to Cape Dorset in the 1950s he introduced printmaking based upon those techniques used by the Japanese to create woodblock prints. Due to a lack of wood in the Arctic, the ancient Japanese technique of using stone-blocks for printing was implemented. The first exhibition of Cape Dorset prints was issued in 1959, which encouraged other Inuit communities to experiment with the art making process over the next decade. Problems with the sizes of the stone blocks however led to the use of stencils, first made of sealskin, and later waxed paper. In the early history of Inuit prints, stone cut prints were preferred, with experimentation in bone and linoleum. These prints are produced by carving away the excess stone in order to leave a raised area that contains the image to be printed. Other printmaking methods are now employed by contemporary artists, such as lithography, engraving, etching and aquatint.
The prints are signed or stamped with the names of the artist and printer in various combinations of England and Inuktitut syllabics. There is also a pictographic symbol meant to refer to the co-operative in which it was produced. The Canadian Government has set standards for the production, for example controlling the number of editions made, and the authentication of prints.