Preserving history: Thousands of artworks from Cape Dorset to be digitized

Thousands of pieces of art from Cape Dorset are being digitized in an effort to preserve a critical part of Inuit history — before it’s too late.

Sculptures, drawings and prints date back as far as 1959

Filmmaker Priscilla Galvez, left, Toronto-Danforth MP Julie Dabrusin, and marketing manager William Huffman tour the Dorset Fine Arts offices in Toronto during the announcement of Canadian Heritage funding for the digitization initiative. (Dorset Fine Arts)

Thousands of pieces of art from Cape Dorset are being digitized in an effort to preserve a critical part of Inuit history before it's too late.

"In looking at that incredible volume of material, artwork … we felt that it was a priority to make this accessible to the public," said William Huffman, marketing manager for Dorset Fine Arts.

"It's the idea of documenting and interpreting history before we completely lose the generations that were the founders … of Inuit art."

Dorset Fine Arts works with the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative to market Cape Dorset art.

Approximately 155,000 sculptures, prints and drawings dating back to 1959 are expected to be digitally archived — 25,000 of which come from the Kinngait Studios in Cape Dorset.

Another 100,000 are from the McMichael Canadian Art Collection outside of Toronto and 30,000 more are from the Dorset Fine Arts office in Toronto.

Artists drew inspiration from surroundings

Many of the pieces depict life in Cape Dorset, drawing on what was happening in the communities and on the land at the time for inspiration, said Huffman.

The idea is to digitize this material in a way that people will be able to discover the evolution of Cape Dorset art from its early stages, in which artists were making rudimentary marks on paper, to the present day.

Every single piece of art that's being digitized has been created by a Cape Dorset artist, which Huffman describes as extraordinary.

"And this is just what we've retained in our archives," he said. "You can imagine what's circulated in the world since the early days of art-making in Cape Dorset."

But the project has its challenges.

The archive facility at the Kenojuak Cultural Centre in Cape Dorset, Nunavut, houses 25,000 items. The centre is set to officially open in September of 2018. (Dorset Fine Arts)

High costs and race against time

The equipment needed to do the work costs about $55,000 alone, said Huffman.

Then there's the issue of translation. Some images aren't attributed to specific artists, said Huffman, but have syllabics on them that he said are from a dwindling dialect.

"We also need to digitize these things so we can send the images to the right people in the North, to make sure … the identification, attribution and those translations can get done before it's permanently too late," said Huffman.

Luckily, the group has received a grant from Canadian Heritage to help with the work.

Huffman expects the project will take three years to complete.

MORE NORTH NEWS | Nunavut woman who 'hated art' her whole life discovers hidden talent

With files from Michael Salomonie