Inuit Art: Printed Textiles from Kinngait Studios at the Textile Museum of Canada

by | Feb 3, 2021 | Indigenous Art and Craft, Ontario, Virtual Tourism

My name is Brye Robertson and I am Inuvialuk. Inuvialuit are a group of Inuit from the Western Arctic of what is now known as Canada. I am honoured write about the exhibition “Printed Textiles from Kinngait Studios,” on display at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto, Ontario. The museum is currently closed to visits due to COVID-19, but curatorial lead Roxane Shaughnessy was kind enough to send me a copy of the exhibition catalog, “Printed Textiles from Kinngait Studios,” and I invite you to experience the exhibition virtually along with me.

Disclaimer:

The word eskimo may appear throughout this article because the word was used in the name of a company. Many Inuit still use the word “eskimo” to describe themselves, and many Inuit find it offensive, because it is not a word from our Native languages. If you are not Inuit, I ask that you please refrain from using the word. It is important to know that we are Inuit. It is not okay to correct any Inuit if they choose to use the word, because if they choose to use the word and reclaim it, that is up to them. Personally, I do not use it. I do not speak for all Inuit; I am just one Inuk sharing what I know and my opinion.

Artists from Kinngait, Nunavut, formerly known as Cape Dorset and also known as the Capital of Inuit Art, produced a large amount of meaningful and very bold textiles in the 1950s and ‘60s. In the catalog “Printed Textiles from Kinngait Studios,” by Roxane Shaughnessy and Anna Richard, it says that these textiles were created during “a period of social change that disrupted traditional language and relationship to the land.”

The Textile Museum of Canada, Dorset Fine Arts, and the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative (WBEC) are in agreement to permit the museum to display the artworks, which are considered to be an important part of Inuit history and tell some amazing stories of Inuit life. There are more than 200 items in this collection, and some have been digitized so they can be viewed online, which makes it more accessible to people who may not be able to visit the museum, especially during pandemic times.

The screen-printing endeavor was “a short-lived but vital part of Cape Dorset Inuit art history” says WBEC president Pauloosie Kowmageak. WBEC is known around the world for its “highly successful printmaking program and for the quality and originality of the prints” (p. 29), but the textiles on display at the museum are a lesser-known initiative by WBEC.

There were several influences that started the textile initiative, one of them being the southern art market. At the time printmaking was introduced to Inuit in Kinngait by artist James Houston, it was part of a government program that encouraged the production of Inuit art for sale in the southern market. Houston also introduced woodblock printmaking which he had learned during a three-month trip to Japan, “and the inspiration printmakers drew from seeing Japanese stencil prints in the studios drove stencilling at Kinngait Studios in a new and promising direction” (p.35).

WBEC was established in 1959 in Kinngait and was led by Inuit. Kananginak Pootoogook (1935-2010), who was already an established carver, engraver and hunter, was elected President and was one of the first to work on the prints. Some of the other artists that joined him to work on prints were “Osuitok Ipeelee (1922-2005), Iyola Kingwatsiak (1933-2000), Eegyvudluk Pootoogook (1931-2000), and Lukta Qiatsuk (1928-2004). These men formed the core group of print makers who produced most of the early print media” (p. 35). Some of the other artists that participated in the printed textile art included Pitseolak Ashoona (1904-1983). As I am writing this I am looking at a creatively made print by her named “Ptarmigan,” which is so stunning to look at, another artist named Parr (1893-1969), and Pudlo Pudlat (1916-1992), all three are now recognized for the artistry in the print and drawing art form.

Unfortunately, even though there was great interest in the prints, the projected sales didn’t meet up with actual sales, and in January 1968 “the fabric printing department in Kinngait was abolished and the fabric designs were licenced to Jeff Brown Fine Fabrics Limited” (p.45).

That’s just a bit of the history of these beautifully made printed textiles, which “celebrate the Arctic’s changing landscape and environment, and feature animals such as polar bears, caribou, and various birds, along with supernatural beings. Some depict scenes from myths, such as the legend of the sea goddess Nuliajuk (also known as Sedna and by many other names around the circumpolar world) and illustrate stories and the old way of life” (p.29).

As I write this article, I think about Inuit creativity and innovation. Inuit have always been able to use the materials they have on hand and make beautiful and functional clothing, tools, art, and even homes. I think about the old-style parkas that Inuit made from the 1960s to the ‘80s, which were popular around the world, and today I see a new, contemporary style of parka that Inuit artists and seamstresses are making that again are popular around the world.

The most important and meaningful quote that I will take out of the catalog is this one, by Heather Igloliorte: “‘By imbedding that otherwise forbidden knowledge in their artworks, Inuit artists expressed the principle of qanuqtuurungnarniq, being innovative and resourceful to solve problems, by using the means available to them – art making – to cleverly safeguard Inuit Knowledge for future generations.’ Since time immemorial Inuit have used what was available to them, such as the land, animals, ice, and the sea, and the use of these resources ensured the survival of Inuit in the Arctic. She notes ‘today they apply this same principle of extreme resourcefulness to their daily lives, making use of all the supplies available to them. This valued quality has been and continues to be a touchstone of modern and contemporary Inuit art production as well.’”  

The printed textile images shared in the catalog are captivating. There are many different themes of images, such as animals and spiritual beings, as well as Inuit celebrating life in many forms. Many different artists contributed their spectacular art to be printed on these textiles. The prints with animals portray those you would find in Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands).

On page 28 of the catalog there is a textile image by a well-known Inuit artist, Pitseolak Ashoona (1904-1983), titled “Ptarmigan,” and the detail in these birds is astonishing, but at the same time there isn’t too much detail to make the work too busy. Pitseolak is known for her depiction of animals, the Inuit way of life, as well as being connected to the land and animals.

Image description: Artwork of dark-green birds printed on white background.
Pitseolak Ashoona (1904-1983). “Ptarmigan,” 1950s – 1960s. Cotton, screen printed, 202 x 102 cm, T2017.20.167. On loan from the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, reproduced with the Permission of Dorset Fine Arts. Courtesy of Textile Museum of Canada.

There isn’t any way to describe these works of art through words that would do the images justice, but I will do my best. The next image on page 69, really stood out to me is an image by Pudlo Pudlat (1916-1992) titled “Spirits and Birds.” It’s hard to explain this image; if you look closely, you can see the birds in the middle, but they are mystical looking birds, with non-human-like faces surrounding them. Inuit have many stories that involve non-human beings and/or sea creatures. Maybe these are spiritual bird beings that come from old Inuit stories. Inuit art tells so many stories and almost always there are life lessons to be learned through those stories. As an Inuk I am still learning about many of the old stories as I continue to learn and listen.

Image description: Artwork of green and blue birds surrounded by faces, printed on a cream-coloured fabric.

Pudlo Pudlat (1916-1922). “Spirits and Birds,” 1950s – 1960s. Linen, screen printed, 340 x 118 cm, T2017.20.157. On loan from the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, reproduced with the Permission of Dorset Fine Arts. Courtesy of Textile Museum of Canada.

All of the images that I look at in the catalog are distinctly Inuit. I can tell these are original pieces of Inuit art because of the style. Inuit art has a very unique style that is only seen among Inuit because the pieces tell stories about living in the Arctic and living amongst the animals and land in the Arctic. It is my impression that each artist used their regular style of art for the textiles, it was just a different art medium rather than drawing or painting on paper, wood or canvas; their art was simply transferred to textiles.

I wish I could talk about all of the beautiful textiles, but for the sake of space, the last image I will discuss is by Innukjuakju Pudlat (1913-1972), titled “Many Eskimos.” From my perspective, this is an image of many Inuit playing games, because Inuit had many different games that they played. These games would help pass time and would also bring laughter. Laughter has always been a part of Inuit life and is even considered medicine. I also see many Inuit dancing, which again has always been a part of Inuit culture and traditions. Notice the attire that is worn. Inuit made all their clothes, shoes, mitts, and everything they used to keep warm, and they were all made from animals. In the image, I can see he is wearing kamiik (boots) and an Inuit-style parka. These clothes are usually made with seal skin and/or caribou skin, and again they are distinctly Inuit.

Image description: Olive-green-coloured figures wearing parkas in states of play.

Innukjuakju Pudlat (1913-1972), “Many Eskimos” 1950s – 1960s. Cotton and polyester blend, screen printed, 158 x 90 cm, T2017.20.35. On loan from the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative, reproduced with the Permission of Dorset Fine Arts. Courtesy of the Textile Museum of Canada.

As I mentioned earlier, my words and descriptions just cannot do these textile pieces justice. These are one-of-a-kind, totally unique pieces of art. I haven’t had the luxury of seeing these pieces in person, but just admiring them through the catalog is awe-inspiring.

I would like to thank the Textile Museum of Canada and Roxane Shaughnessy for taking time to help me with this piece and for offering me the catalog. Also, to all Inuit artists past, present and future, please keep creating the beauty that you do. The world always needs more Inuit art and the world is a better place because of Inuit art.

Some of the printed textiles were nominated and won awards.

In 1965, the WBEC fabrics were among 2400 submissions and one of only fifty-eight products to win an award for exceptional new design. These awards, along with the Canadian Arctic Producers promotional tour and the prints’ inclusion at Expo 67, helped to spark interest in the prints. Images of the prints were also shared in the Los Angeles based magazines Designers West and Chatelaine.

Featured photo courtesy Textile Museum of Canada.

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Brye Robertson
Brye Robertson

Brye Robertson: “I am an Inuk, more specifically I am Inuvialuk. I grew up in Fort Smith NWT. I am currently a visitor on Treaty 7 territory. I am a student at Mount Royal University in the Social Work Diploma program, which will turn into the Social Work degree soon. I also just graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Child Studies, majoring in Early Learning and Child Care. I also run my own business where I bead earrings and sew face masks. And just recently learned how to sew moccasins.”