Baffin and beyond: world-renowned Inuit art studio celebrates 65th anniversary

It began with an art studio so small and ill-equipped that printmakers opened windows to the Arctic winter to vent the toxic chemicals.

Now, it is an internationally known source of images and imagination that adorns the walls and tables of Canadians and art lovers around the world, as well as a business that provides Inuit with everything from public housing to small engine repair.

“We’re pretty busy,” said Pauloosie Kowmageak, president of the West Baffin Cooperative, Canada’s oldest Indigenous-owned arts organization, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year. It is known in its home community of Kinngait, Nvt., simply as “the Co-op,” but is best known as the first of the printmaking studios that brought the Inuit vision to the world and gave Canada some of its most iconic art.

Art from Kinngait, formerly Cape Dorset, has appeared on postage stamps such as Kenojuak Ashevak’s ‘The Enchanted Owl’, among others. He has been introduced to ambassadors and represented Canada at major global art fairs such as the Venice Biennale.

“It’s been an important part of Canadian culture,” said Darlene Wight, curator of Inuit art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which owns the largest collection of such works in the world.

The cooperative began in 1959, as a result of efforts to improve the production, quality and marketing of the art that the Inuit had been making for centuries. Studios like West Baffin gave Inuk makers the opportunity to move from carving to the more lucrative field of printmaking.

They were difficult days, remembers recordist Niveaksie Quvianaqtuliaq, who has worked at the studio for 34 years.

“We didn’t have any proper equipment,” he said. “When we used harsh chemicals, our ventilation was so weak that we had to open windows and doors. In January, when all the chemicals came out, you could see your breath.”

It’s not like that.

The studio, now claimed to be the oldest printing press in Canada, is equipped with the latest in stonecutting, engraving, stenciling and lithography equipment, as well as a drawing studio. It has a gallery, a restaurant and a shopping area in the 1,000-square-meter Kenojuak Cultural Center.

More than 100 people work there, making it the city’s largest employer, Kowmageak said.

“Economically we help the community.”

The artists and engravers who put their designs on paper are almost all local. Many are second or third generation.

“We’re happy to have this continue within the families,” Kowmageak said. “We’re trying to bring it into the school system as well to keep it going.”

West Baffin art has changed over the generations, Wight said.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and former French President Jacques Chirac leave the West Baffin Co-operative while visiting Cape Dorset, Nunavut, Monday, September 6, 1999. Canada’s oldest Indigenous-owned arts organization celebrates its 65th anniversary this year. (CP PHOTO/Paul Chiasson)Images rooted in traditional land activities, ancient myths and animal life are changing to include elements of modern Inuit life. It has also become more technically sophisticated, gradually moving from simple silhouettes to incorporating color and perspective.

“It’s becoming more and more diverse,” Wight said.

“The theme is definitely changing from the more rural life their parents lived to a more urban perspective. That’s what all the young people are doing: They’re not doing hunting scenes.”

Throughout the life of the cooperative, the art has also achieved international recognition.

In 1999, then-French President Jacques Chirac made a detour to Kinngait to meet artists and shop. Wight has curated exhibitions of Inuit art in the European principality of Monaco, which Prince Rainier attended, as well as the Italian city of Verona.

“The Italians think they have the art market cornered, but it was great fun watching them explore carvings, prints, drawings and textiles,” Wight said.

Wight is currently preparing an exhibition by Kinngait artist Shuvinai Ashoona for London, England. There are currently shows scheduled to celebrate the co-op’s anniversary in Miami and Fredericton.

West Baffin has become a conduit between life on a remote Arctic island and the rest of the world. International visitors are common; most recently, a delegation from South Korea.

Quvianaqtuliaq studied at the Nova Scotia Academy of Art and Design and worked with printmakers in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“We’re all over the world now,” he said.

“I look back and look around and I can’t believe I’m here, working with all the artists. I love my job.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2024.

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