The coastline of south Baffin Island is rugged, beautiful and plentiful, and the Inuit of this region refer to themselves as Sikusilaarmiut. The name refers to the lack of ice along this coast or, more accurately, that the waters of the Hudson Strait stay open beyond the edge of the ice floe, even in winter.
As you approach Cape Dorset from the sea, you are struck from afar by the silhouette of the highest hill on the southwest extremity of Baffin Island overlooking Hudson Strait. There, looming on the horizon like a sleeping beast of prey and bearing the Inuktitut name of Kinngait (the mountain), sits Dorset Island.
The Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post here in 1913, followed by the missions, the school and in 1959, the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative. The Co-op is the oldest arts organization in the Canadian Arctic, and the Kinngait Studios are the oldest professional printmaking studios in Canada. Cape Dorset is home to some of Canada’s most acclaimed Inuit artists, and the Co-op and its Toronto marketing office, Dorset Fine Arts, have been representing them for the past fifty years.
Before 1957, graphic art on paper was rare in the Canadian Eastern Arctic, although few created occasional drawings and watercolours when materials were available. Despite the lack of paper, a strong Inuit graphic tradition has existed for many centuries. Incised designs on ivory, stone and musk ox horn — decorative patterns on tools and amulets that evoke the spiritual and animal world —reach back over a thousand years. Appliquéd designs on hide garments and bags sewn by Inuit women evidence an equally vibrant graphic tradition in sealskin and caribou-skin sewing. These traditions continue today using modern and traditional materials.
Printmaking was introduced in Cape Dorset in late 1957 by James Houston (1921–2005), an artist, writer and the Area Administrator for South Baffin Island. He was employed by the federal government to encourage the production of carving and crafts in the North and to promote Inuit art in the South. In Cape Dorset’s newly erected crafts shop, Houston along with Osuitok Ipeelee (1922–2005) and Kananginak Pootoogook (1935-2010) began to experiment with fabric and paper printing using linoleum floor tiles cut with simple designs. The first results looked promising and they were joined in the print studio by Iyola Kingwatsiak (1933-2000), Lukta Qiatsuk (1928-2004), Eegyvudluk Pootoogook (1931-2000) and translator Joanassie Salomonie (1938-1998). From late 1957 until late 1958, using the few materials available, these resourceful artists continued their experiments and created an uncatalogued, experimental collection of roughly twenty relief and stencil prints on paper. Twelve of these prints were test-marketed through the Hudson’s Bay Company department store in Winnipeg, Manitoba in the fall of 1958, winning rave reviews.
Wanting to bring greater knowledge of printing to the Arctic, James Houston studied printmaking in Japan from November 1958 until February 1959 with the master woodcut printmaker Un’ichi Hiratsuka (1895–1997). Houston returned to Cape Dorset and shared what he had learned in Japan with the Inuit printmakers. Adapting and inventing, the Cape Dorset artists developed their own unique ways of making direct stencil and stonecut relief prints. The Inuit printmakers created their first official catalogued collection of prints in 1959, numbering 41 works in total. These artworks were released to the public with great fanfare in February 1960 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Meanwhile, to better manage their fledgling studio enterprise, the Cape Dorset artists incorporated a co-operative association called the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative, which continues to operate today.
Over the past 50 years, the much-celebrated success of the West Baffin/ Kinngait Co-operative has proven to the world a number of different, sometimes challenged, truths about both Inuit culture, and secondly, about community-owned and controlled co-operatives. Firstly, despite all the changes that Canadian Inuit have experienced in the past 70 years, their unique culture – and way of seeing the world – is very much still vibrant and alive. Cape Dorset printmaking and carving have shared fragments of Inuit culture with the rest of the world. Art purchased from this community is held in very high regard internationally. Secondly, the Inuit of Cape Dorset have long supported their community co-operative. Many realized early on the benefits of such an economic organization, one which would simultaneously allow them to learn ways to generate income in a changing economic atmosphere, and, in concert with other community members, ensure that the organization met community needs in a democratic and transparent way. West Baffin is a wonderful example of how community economic development can, and should be, community owned and operated.