From the archives

Iqaluit museum displays historic works by Cape Dorset artists



Cramped in a small back room in Iqaluit’s Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum, Brian Lunger sorts through a collection of Cape Dorset prints recently released from the Cape Dorset archives.

“This one is a stencil,” Lunger explains, gesturing to the print in front of him. “The Dorset printmakers started out doing stonecut and stencils. They tend to be bold, simple images.”

Each year since 1959, the Kinngait Studio in Cape Dorset has released its annual print collection. Over the years, as the popularity and production of the work grew, the number of prints produced often exceeded the allotted number of spots in the collection.

Many print editions were held back, some due to technical reasons, others because of their similarity to other images and also to make sure any one artist wasn’t overexposed. As a result, in the studio was left with an inventory of work stretching to the earliest years of the printmaking program.

This year the studio decided to release 14 images from its archive collection. Although it’s not the fist time this has been done, Lunger says it’s a rare chance to see and purchase the work at the Iqaluit museum.

Well-known artists such as Pudlo Pudlat, Pitseolak Ashoona, Napachie Pootoogook, Lucy Quinnauyuak, Eleeshushe Parr, Lizzie Saggiak and Eegyvadluk Ragee are represented in the collection.

The images, some coloured and some in black and white, are all signed by the artist. Many of the faces of the depicted creatures have a haunting appearance, with large dark eyes. Most of the pieces have information, such as the title, medium, date and edition number written in pencil in the same sloping handwriting.

“They were editioned in the year they were produced,” Lunger says, but the other information has just recently been added. He points to marks on the edge of the prints. The red arch, an igloo, Lunger says, is the Cape Dorset mark. There are also artists and printmaker chop stamps. The later prints, such as those from the 1980s, have handwritten signatures.

Ten of the 14 images were created in the 1960s, some as early as 1961. Artists used stencils made from scraped sealskin before eventually moving to waxed paper and then to more contemporary stencil materials. By about 1975, stencils and stonecuts were used together, with artists usually printing an image with a stonecut then stenciling to add colour.

Artist James Houston, who moved to Cape Dorset in the 1950s, has written that printmaking in the community began when a man saw his cigarette package and wondered how the packages could have identical pictures. Houston showed him how ink reapplied to a line cut into a walrus tusk and pressed on paper could produce the same image over and over again.

Houston then spent time in Japan studying printmaking techniques and set up a workshop in Cape Dorset when he returned. Elements of Japanese printmaking can be seen in the Dorset prints, from the signature chop blocks used by early artists to mark the art as their own to the paper some of the images are printed on.

The Cape Dorset prints are sought after by collectors both in North America and abroad.

“Works of this vintage and by these artists are highly prized by collectors,” Lunger says. Kenojuak Ashevak’s Enchanted Owl, a stonecut print, commanded almost $60,000 last year, the highest price ever paid at auction for a Canadian Inuit art print.

Lunger guesses the appeal has to do with the history to a certain extent and the ingenious marketing done to promote the art form in Toronto.

“Right from the beginning people were struck by these simple images, though,” he says, still looking through the papers on the table. “I think people were surprised by the quality and amount of art coming from those with such little art background. It’s also so unlike anything else the art world had seen at that time.”

Because of the popularity and demand for these prints, Lunger says a ticket draw will be held on Sept. 7, the day the show opens, to give those present an equal opportunity to purchase the limited-edition works.

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