A remarkable chapter in the history of art in Canada has been the emergence of a new stage of creative expression in the Arctic.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Inuit artists – in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador – have contributed to a flourishing of sculpture, drawing and printmaking and work in other media that address issues of identity and aesthetics, as well as tell a compelling story of cross-cultural interaction. The National Gallery’s collection represents key artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak, Jessie Oonark, Karoo Ashevak, and David Ruben Piqtoukun and reflects the significant creative and historical developments within this contemporary (post-1949) period of Inuit art.
In 1956, the National Gallery acquired its first sculptures by Nunavik (Quebec) artists, including Charlie Sivuarapik, the first Inuit member of the Sculpture Society of Canada. In the 1960s, important early prints, such as The Enchanted Owl by Kenojuak Ashevak were purchased from the first Arctic printmaking studio established by the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in Cape Dorset (Nunavut). In the 1980s, major donations received from the Friends of the National Gallery, Dorothy M. Stillwell, M.D., and M.F. Feheley increased the Inuit holdings to over 350 works. In 1989 and 1992, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development transferred a further 570 works to the Gallery.
Nunavik (Quebec) is the source of some of the most striking early sculpture. Davidialuk Alasua Amittu and Johnny Inukpuk are among the carvers represented who helped define the narrative character of the work from this region. From Nunavut, the new territory created in 1999, Cape Dorset artists dominate sculpture holdings, with some 100 pieces by artists such as Osuitok Ipeelee, Kiawak Ashoona, Qaqaq Ashoona and, Oviloo Tunnillie. From Kivalliq, or central Nunavut, the more austere, almost abstracted work of Arviat and Rankin Inlet artists is represented by important pieces by Lucy Tasseor Tutsweetok, John Pagnark, John Tiktak, and John Kavik. The Kitikmeot region of Nunavut, is known for its expressionistic style and strong links to spiritual / shamanic beliefs. The Gallery’s collection includes important group of works by Karoo Ashevak, Judas Ullulaq, and Charlie Ugyuk. From the Northwest Territories, Inuvialuit artists, David Ruben Piqtoukun and Abraham Anghik Ruben are important contributors to the representation more recent sculptural trends, as is Michael Massie, from the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador and Newfoundland, who works in silver as well as stone.
More than 800 prints and drawings are in the collection, with works from all the various print studios that have been active since the first experiments began in Cape Dorset in the late 1950s. These include Cape Dorset, Puvirnituq, Holman (Uluhaktok), Baker Lake, Pangnirtung, and Clyde River. Among the 350 drawings in the collection, of particular importance are the holdings of drawings by Parr, Pitseolak Ashoona, Kenojuak Ashevak, Kiakshuk and Pudlo Pudlat of Cape Dorset. Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Simon Tookoome of Baker Lake are also represented with a strong selection of drawings. The gallery is especially fortunate to have received Jessie Oonark's sweeping panoramic view of life in the North, When the Days are Long and the Sun Shines into the Night (1966–69) as a gift of Boris and Elizabeth Kotelewetz in 1991 In other media, works on cloth are represented by the wall-hangings of Jessie Oonark, Marion Tuu'luq, Victoria Mamnguqsualuk and the artists and weavers of the Uqqurmiut studio of Pangnirtung, including Elisapee Ishulutaq.
The collection and presentation of Inuit art is supported as well by the Gallery's growing research holdings in this area. The library, for example, has acquired the extensive library and archives of Sandra Buhai Barz. While focussed on the post-1949 phase of Canadian Inuit art, this collection includes important resources in circumpolar Arctic peoples and arts and spans that history from four thousand years ago to the present.
The Gallery has put women artists at the centre of several displays in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. In this short video, learn more about Jessie Oonark, a prolific and influential Canadian Inuit artist.
Learn more about Inagaddadavida, a collaborative project between Inuit artist Shuvinai Ashoona and Toronto artist Shary Boyle.
Christine Lalonde, Associate Curator of Aboriginal Art