Coral Harbour artist sparks discussion: what is 'Inuit art?'

The inclusion of a non-Inuit artist on a list of 'Stunning Aboriginal Artworks' has ignited a discussion about cultural appropriation — begging a question as to whether one needs to be Inuit to create Inuit art.

Fred Degrace creates Inuit-style artwork but is not himself Inuk

"Narwhal," a carving by Coral Harbour's Fred Degrace. (Courtesy of Northern Images)

The inclusion of a non-Inuk artist on a list of "Stunning Aboriginal Artworks" has ignited a discussion about cultural appropriation — begging a question as to whether one needs to be Inuit to create Inuit art.

The list, "15 Stunning Aboriginal Artworks From Across Canada" was published on June 19 by the Huffington Post. One of the artists included on the list, Fred Degrace, was listed as an "Inuit artist" from Coral Harbour, Nunavut.

However, Degrace is not Inuk. Instead, he is half Cree and half French. Originally from Winnipeg, he has lived in Coral Harbour for 15 years.

Jeannie Kataluk, who is Inuk, is Degrace's partner. She said there has never been any misrepresentation about his background.

"He has been around Nunavut long enough," she said. "He sees the beauty of it and has the ability to create beauty."

"He has never, ever, ever, represented himself as Inuk."

However, Degrace carves in a style reminiscent of Inuit artists. His work is easy to find online, and despite that he says he clearly identifies his work as not being made by an Inuk, galleries consistently categorize it as Inuit art.
Though Fred Degrace does not represent himself as Inuit, his work is consistently featured in museums and galleries as 'Inuit art.' (Museum of Inuit Art)

​What is 'Inuit art?'

Melanie Zavediuk is the owner and director of the Inuit Gallery of Vancouver. Founded in 1979, the gallery originally only carried Inuit art, but has since branched out, selling aboriginal art from the northwest coast.

According to Zavediuk, one possible definition of Inuit art is art made by Inuit. However, she cautioned that as the art form evolves, heritage may not be the only defining characteristic.

"Artists are inspired by their surroundings, their environment, by the people that they live with," she said. "We do our best to let our clients know who the artists are whose work we are representing."
"Sedna," a carving by Coral Harbour's Fred Degrace. Degrace is not Inuit, but his work is reminiscent in style of Inuit-art, leading gallery owners to disagree on whether an artist needs to be Inuk to create "Inuit art." (Courtesy of Northern Images)

Jerry Ell, an Inuk artist from Nunavut living in Winnipeg, has been carving since he was 13. Ell agrees that artists are inspired by the world around them, but is adamant that authentic Inuit art can only be made by Inuit.

"It's something that is connected to our culture and our connection to the land," he said.

John Houston, the owner and director of Houston North Gallery in Nova Scotia, agrees with Ell. He said that the responsibility to properly represent Inuit art is a shared one.

"Cultural appropriation is a issue that has been rampant for, I don't know, decades," he says. "For a long time. 

"Surely, to goodness, we can all agree that Inuit art would belong to, and be the sole intellectual property of Inuit."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?