A cultural adventure in Nunavut

October 25, 2019Curated Art Trips

Artist Ooloosie Saila and her son, Pallu at work on a drawing.

Stone carvers, printmakers, throat singing and dramatic landscapes gave PIA members an experience to remember

By Alexa Samuels and the Cape Dorset trip committee.

On September 20 adventurous PIA members embarked on a trip to Nunavut that proved to be as much about culture, landscapes, and people as it was about art. We were inspired by fellow member Marnie Schreiber and her stunning Inuit collection that PIA had visited in fall 2017.

National Gallery’s Canadian and Indigenous art galleries curated by Christine Lalonde.

The trip began in Ottawa with a tour of the National Gallery’s Canadian and Indigenous art galleries led by its visionary, associate curator, Christine Lalonde. Other Ottawa highlights included a visit to one of Canada’s best kept secrets, the Canada Council Art Bank, which at 17,000 pieces has the world’s largest collection of contemporary Canadian art which is also available for rent to corporations and government offices. During dinner we were joined by Senator Pat Bovey, Kelly Langgard, head of Partnership and International Coordination at the Canada Council for the Arts and actor, writer and activist Oo Aqpik .

The Kenojuak Cultural Centre and Print Shop is an important hub for the community and artists in Kinngait.

The following morning we flew to Kinngait [Cape Dorset] with Lalonde and Gregor Muir, the director of collection, International Art, Tate. Muir joined us to experience Inuit art and its context firsthand. Over the next few days we met many local stone carvers, such as Kellypalik Etidlooie working outdoors, while exploring the town, and we spent time in the beautiful and recently built Kenojuak Cultural Centre (KCC). Home to the famed West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative’s (WBEC) printmaking program which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, the KCC’s exceptional facilities support drawing, stone carving, and stone cut, etching and lithograph printmaking. We were welcomed by William Huffman of Dorset Fine Arts, Jason Paul and Joemee Takpaungai of the WBEC and we met artists and printmakers who introduced us to their work and processes, including Padloo Samayualie, Johnny Pootoogook, Quvianaqtuk Pudlat, Niveaksie Quvianaqtuliaq and Nujalia Quvianaqtuliaq (lithographers), Samaiyu Akesuk, Ning Ashoona, Ooloosie Saila and Shuvinai Ashoona who was awarded the 2018 Gershon Iskowitz Prize at the AGO for her outstanding contribution to the visual arts in Canada.

A Stone carver working in front of his shed.
View of Cape Dorset/Kinngait looking west.

The trip was eye opening and impactful in so many ways. We experienced both authentic northern weather in September – impervious fog, driving rain, 90 KPH winds, spectacular sunsets – and the fragility of travel in the North when our flight out of Kinngait was cancelled, delaying departure by a day. We enjoyed throat singing, heard stories, and learned traditional Inuit games from elders. We ate caribou meatloaf, muskox stew, Arctic char; we even tried raw seal and beluga whale (country food).

Kaselle and group hiking over rocks overlooking Cape Dorset.

Dressed in our many layers, we visited homes, hiked over rocks accompanied by Pootoogoo (Black Toe), our rifle-wielding guide, saw ancient stone circles in an archeological park, stepped over willow “trees” and were awed by an iceberg. We toured the brand new state-of-the-art high school where a presentation of camera equipment for the students, donated by members of PIA, was made.  Through walks, mealtimes with special guests and evening talks with elders and women in the community such as Silaqqi Ashevak and Louisa Jaw, we began to understand the past and present of this close knit, proud and very talented community whose artistic output is unrivaled in the world.

Learning about the ancient Thule and Dorset peoples.

We spent our final day in Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, where we visited the Nunavut Arctic College’s goldsmith (jewellery) program run by an enthusiastic educator, Beata Hejnowicz. This wonderful program produces some extremely talented young designers and jewellery makers. Some of us explored landmarks such as the original Hudson’s Bay Company building from 1943 and the Road to Nowhere, and others immersed themselves in Iqaluit’s nightlife before we flew back home the next day to warmer temperatures.

We developed a new appreciation for the Inuit people, their art and their land. We opened our eyes to both the hardships and joys of living in the North, and through it all developed genuine friendships with our fellow PIA travellers.