Successful print-making co-op set pattern for government initiatives, book argues

How Cape Dorset reshaped northern development


Cape Dorset's 50-year transformation from a tiny Baffin settlement into an internationally-renowned printmaking community is the story that a new book tries to tackle in 300 packed pages.

Through more than 200 colour prints, photos and a dozen personal essays, "Cape Dorset Prints: a retrospective" retraces the first half-century of printmaking in Cape Dorset – from the first prints in 1957 and the establishment of the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative in 1960, to the Kinngait Studios' enduring prowess at producing and marketing yearly collections of prints.

The book suggests it's the co-op that gave artists the freedom and the stimulation to develop their art.

Kinngait Studios also found the means – which other Arctic print shops never did – to independently support the community's artists. Over time, this enabled the printmakers to expand their audience from a small group of traditional Inuit art collectors to a worldwide stock of contemporary art collectors.

During the past 50 years, Cape Dorset prints, still known for their symmetry, bold shapes, bright colours, fantastic forms and storytelling, have also evolved. Prints, such as Kavavaow Manomee's image of planes turning into birds on 9-11 or the forlorn and erotic red bra pictured by Annie Pootoogook, now reflect what Inuit see and hear today.

At the same time, Cape Dorset's printmaking techniques have expanded from the use of stonecuts and stencil to include new techniques like engraving, etchings, aquatint and lithography.

"Cape Dorset Prints" reveals that not every artistic effort tried out by the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative was successful. An early line of sealskin lamps and local stone mosaic tables failed, as did projects to produce pottery, weaving, jewelry, screen fabric and print books.

Assisted by resident Qallunaat, northern service officer John Houston and long-time manager Terry Ryan, who had "eyes of an artist and the thick skin of a businessman," printmaking thrived in Cape Dorset.

But the co-op's overall success brought about a "radical change" in how the government would develop the North, by basing development on community-owned co-ops, says the book's editor, Leslie Boyd Ryan.

Kinngait Studios is now the longest running print studio in Canada. Since the 1970s, the co-op has distributed art through Dorset Fine Arts and its showroom in Toronto, which safeguards a $1 million storehouse of carvings and graphics. The co-operative produces yearly print collections, calendars and other products, which are marketed around the world.

In its effort to appeal to every audience, "Cape Dorset Prints" offers history, art criticism, and personal reflections from managers and artists. There's also enough visual material to witness to the talent of Cape Dorset's many artists – which is reason enough to invest in a copy.

But will printmaking rack up another 50 years of success in Cape Dorset? The fate of printmaking studio is now in the hands of a new generation, Terry Ryan writes, while Jimmy Manning, now the studio manager, notes changes to the climate and society that have altered the environment that supported the print shop and its artists for so long.

In 1993, Kenojuak Ashevak, writes with some sadness about changes she has seen at the studio in "The light is still on," which the book reprints in Inuktitut and in an English translation.

"When I look around at who is still drawing, it feels like we are babysitting, waiting for the departed ones to come back, knowing that they are not coming back, it feels like the light is getting smaller and smaller," she writes.

Kenojuak, now 80, was to be in Toronto this week for the launch of "Cape Dorset Prints: a retrospective," timed with release of the 2008 Cape Dorset print collection, which also opens at Iqaluit's Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum.

case bound with jacket
304 pages, 10.5" x 10.5", $75
Pomegranate Communications Inc.

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