Women artists of the Canadian Inuits

In sharp contrast to the Western art world where women have been largely sidelined or excluded, in the Canadian Inuit society of Cape Dorset, it is the women who are recognised as the leaders of the contemporary Inuit art movement.

Pitaloosie_Saila_Dorset_Woman_1972

(Pitaloosie Saila, Dorset Woman (1972))

It is women artists who have won the most awards and accolades, who have achieved the highest prices at auction for their artworks and received worldwide recognition.

The Dorset Culture dates back to around 600 BCE, and has a tradition of producing artworks and sculpture depicting a variety of landscapes, activities and animals common to the Inuits, such as bears, birds, seals, caribou and whales. However the work also contains a ritualistic and spiritual significance relating to the shamanic beliefs of the people.

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(Kenojuak Ashevak, Spirit of the Raven, 1979)

In the mid 20th century, printing techniques were introduced to the community, such as stenciling and block printing. As many artists were already familiar with carving techniques and due to the availability of the materials, stone printing was especially accessible. Female artists carved their own stones for the process.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

(The print block for Helen Kalvak’s The Power of Amulets (1987))

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(Kenojuak Ashevak, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1958))

Artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak began producing works in what a Western reading would describe as semi abstract, naive or naturalistic style. This was to prove popular to European and American tastes in an era of Western modernism. In turn, Ashevak’s first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1958) was well received in a burgeoning global art market. Subsequently the artist went on to become the most well known of all Inuit artists of the 20th century.

Ashevak was born the daughter of a shaman, into a traditional life of nomadic tribal hunting on the southern coast of Baffin Island. It was the role of women to cut and work skins and furs, an intricate and skillful process involving design work, contrasting colours and even pictorial arrangements. These were thought to be comparable and easily transferable skills/talents and processes to producing the patterns and forms involved in  graphics, drawing, painting and printmaking.

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(Kenojuak Ashevak, 1963)

Co-operatives were created in which art could be produced in a changing economy for the Inuit people. Women artists often shared any economic gain, investing into the artistic processes in order to maintain community productivity.

kenojuak-ashevak

(Kenojuak Ashevak, 2013)

Artists such as Mayoreak Ashoona, Pitseolak Ashoona, Pitaloosie Sailaand, Helen Kalvak and many more Inuit women artists have emerged and gained success. Each artist, in turn, clearly has an individual style whether reflecting dreams, goddesses, shamanic shape-shifting, evolving camp life or landscape. Themes relating to the artists as women and their own particular experience such as memories of girlhood, motherhood and family life are however, a common thread between the artists

helen kalvak

  (Helen Kalvak, Adopted Sons (1966))

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