National museum builds Inuit art collection

The Canadian Museum of Civilization has expanded its collection of Inuit prints with acquisition of 554 original, limited-edition works of art created over the last 15 years.
Tuuliruaq (Great Big Loon), a stonecut stencil by Mayoreak Ashoona, of Cape Dorset, is one of more than 500 prints created in the last 15 years purchased by the Canadian Museum of Civilization. ((Canadian Museum of Civilization))
The Canadian Museum of Civilization has expanded its collection of Inuit prints with acquisition of 554 original, limited-edition works of art created over the last 15 years.

The acquisition, bought directly from the renowned Dorset Fine Arts collective, gives the national museum a complete set of all the prints created in Cape Dorset in that time period.

Norman Vorano, curator of contemporary Inuit art at the museum, based in Gatineau, Que., on the banks of the Ottawa River opposite from Parliament Hill in Ottawa, said the purchase "brings our collection into the 21st century."

The museum, formerly the Museum of Man, had a tradition of collecting all the prints from Canada's famed Inuit print-makers, dating back to the early days of the Cape Dorset studio.

"When print-making started in the 1950s and early 1960s, we had started to collect complete annual collections of every print, not only in Cape Dorset but in every community that makes prints," Vorano said.

"We had this extraordinary encyclopedia of prints that unfortunately stopped, stopped cold almost, in the mid-1990s, and that had a lot to do with the kind of budgets we had to deal with at that time," he said.

The purchase adds works by a new generation of Inuit print-makers including Annie Pootoogook, the late Arnaqu  Ashevak, Tim Pitsiulak and Suvinai Ashoona.

The Cape Dorset studio actually keeps copies of all the prints made and Vorano said the museum was able to negotiate a good rate to buy the full collection — about $190,000.

"It shows us mid-career artists who really blossomed to maturity, like Kavavaow Mannomee and the sunset of some very important artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak, who is very well represented in the collection," he said.

Ashevak, now 82, still lives at Cape Dorset, though she produces only occasional pieces of art.

Birds Over the Sun, a stencil by Kenojuak Ashevak, is a rare print dating from 1960, at the dawn of Inuit print-making. ((Canadian Museum of Civilization))
"This is really going to move us back to the forefront of Inuit art exhibitions, and research and publishing," he said.

In late 2009, the museum also bought three prints at auction from the dawn of print-making at Cape Dorset.

The purchase includes Kenojuak Ashevak's 1960 stencil, Birds Over the Sun, a print that had a limited release —with only a few prints made and sold only to people who visited the remote studio.

There are also two "experimental" prints by Joseph Pootoogook from 1958 and 1959, when print-making was just being developed at Cape Dorset.

James Houston, the Canadian artist who played a strong role in developing a market for Inuit art, studied print-making in Japan in 1959, Vorano said.

"Houston came back to Canada from Japan in 1959 and he brought with him knowledge of Japanese print-making techniques and some Japanese prints. This knowledge and the prints really inspired the Cape Dorset print-makers and they went on to release their first annual collection," he said.

Vorano said prints from this period are rare and the museum has been trying to trace them since the 1970s. It now has 12 in its collection.

The prints will be exhibited in a show about the links between Japanese print-making and Inuit art debuting at the Canadian Embassy in Japan in 2011 and then touring Canada.