Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3

Postmodernism: New Trends in Inuit Art

From the late 60’s, when post-modernist ideas came into fruition, Western observers began to see aboriginal people as living in a post-colonial context and in the reflection of contemporary society. Inuit Artists began to avoid the idealisation of Inuit life, and they began to show individualist values by exploring more socially charged themes.

From the art industry’s inception, James Houston identified individual carvers and artists that had the most market potential. However, it was only from the late 1960s when artists’ styles began to mature that institutional recognition replaced the modest and collective approach that Inuit Art had been initially affiliated with.[1]  Early signs of Southern influence and the rise of the individual led to the introduction of signatures and the eventual end of anonymity – a concept that is fundamental for economic success in the Western art market.

Traditionalists such as Edmund Carpenter stated his resistance to publicising and individualisation of the Inuit Art form and particular artists.[2] He argued that adopting this new concept is not in-keeping with aboriginal Eskimo art.[3] His point suggests that the removal of anonymity is against the ethos of Inuit traditional craft and the collective spirit. Therefore, it would be removing the very “authenticity” that the art market is trying to promote. Though this provides commentary on how Inuit culture and life in the contemporary period has been shaped by outside forces, the art collecting public in the Western world naturally value “named” artists from other cultures.[4] Nelson Graburn rightly suggests that Inuit were probably encouraged to do this to increase the value of their works. Despite critiques, Houston embraced this and enthusiastically promoted individualisation not purely based on the economic advantage but as an artist himself, he believed Inuit Artists deserved this merit.[5]

Namesake recognition is only a minor factor in the rise of individualism. Its significance within the evolution of Inuit Art, the re-evaluation of identity that it promotes lies within the shift in self-image for many artists. This is the result of various realisations such as seeing the success of peers, the importance of a cultural legacy, the love for creating art, and as discussed before, economic incentive. Despite these realisations, their humble and often collective approach is most notably influential in preventing Inuit Artists from seeing themselves as ‘true artists.’[6]

Considering this, it is the individuality and originality of the artists’ style and world view that is the most important in this discussion. There are two-sides to this view. Some would argue that outside influence is what drove this newly found respect for individualism. However, the postmodernist view supported by Archaeologist Robert Mcghee states that “Inuit Art, like all art, has room to improve, and this is a natural result of a collective spirit and shared aesthetic”, which consequentially creates differentiation and internal competition to do better.[7]

Questioning Authenticity: Marion Jackson and the Two Generations

This investigation has so far discussed Inuit Art as the product of external forces and their impact on perceptions of authenticity. With the rise of the individual artist, it is important to look at the evolution of the artist’s self-conscious mindset and how differing views of authenticity arose from within Baker Lake and Cape Dorset artists. Marion Jackson, a formalist art historian formulated a theory based on the two generations of Inuit Artists coexisting by 1985. Her theory assessed the stylistic differences between the older and younger graphic artists, but beyond this, her work suggested more about the artist self-consciousness through acculturation.[8] She employs the periodisation of aesthetics based on Alois Rigel’s Stilffragen to differentiate works by artists born prior to and post the presence of Western modernity in Inuit society (born either at the turn of the century or during the second quarter). [9] Though a formalist, her work is applicable for analysis beyond aesthetics. She suggested that older artists “did not aspire towards innovation” and had “little consciousness of the artist self” concluding that there was a naïve fusion of content and form.[10] Contrastingly in younger artists, she suggested there was an “evident self-consciousness in their work” and they were more aware of the choices they were making. In other words, she sees a dividing line between images that convey information and images that evoke an aesthetic response. This analysis will focus on graphic artists, even though Jackson’s theory is also applicable to sculpture. Analysing graphic artists by generation allows us to see the affinities between them.

Artists Born at the Turn of the 20Th Century

Graphic artists such as Parr (1893-1969), Kiakshak (1886-1966) and Luke Anguhadluq (1895-1982) who were born in the late 19th century all commenced drawing in the 1960s, and 70s often depicting shamanistic subject matter and are heavily narrative. Their work reflects the experience of the Arctic environment with a stylistic focus on the remote view of the object. [11]

Parr’s work resembles the most naïve style of the aforementioned artists. His work is reminiscent of the art of small children, consisting of loosely narrative scenes with arrangements of animals and people, randomly chosen and arbitrability sized to fit the page. Untitled (family) (FIG 4)depicts three Inuit figures and one holding the hand of a small child drawn in a loosely crosshatched pattern.[12]

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3
Parr, Untitled (Family), Kinngait – Cape Dorset, c.1960, Coloured Pencil and Graphite on Paper

Kiakshuk born in 1886, took up drawing in the 1960’s and was one of the first to join the printmaking program. As a renowned storyteller he was able to translate oral histories of hunting, family and spirits into his drawings and prints with subject matter ranging from meticulous images of hunting to almost surreal images of spirits and their shamanistic culture. His print Strange Scene (FIG 5) depicts three figures traveling between camps: one resting and removing their boots, with the other two engaged in hunting. In the background two animals are feeding on a seal. [13]

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3
Kiakshuk, Strange Scene, Kinngait – Cape Dorset, 1964, Stone-cut print

Luke Anguhadluq, unlike the other two graphic artists incorporated a variety of colour schemes and often utilised a multiple perspective approach to capture the world he remembers. For instance, in his drawing Drum Dance (FIG 6) depicts a top down view of the activity occurring around the drum.[14]

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3
Luke Anguhadluq, Drum Dance, Qamani’tuaq – Baker Lake, 1970, Coloured Pencil and Graphite on Paper

Pitseolak Ashoona (1904-1983) chronicles her past through an autobiographical approach combined with a vibrant use of colour resulting in a collaborative book with Dorothy Eber called Pitseolak: Pictures out of my life. The illustration on the book cover was, In summer there were always big Mosquitoes (FIG 7).[15] She presents Inuit intellectual and material culture through a didactic quality. In this composition she depicts an Inuit woman (probably herself) in traditional Inuit clothing with her child clinging on. The scene accounts for a semi-nomadic life of the Historic period through the depiction of recognisable traveling equipment. The composition hosts a vibrancy of colour yet keeping with the remoteness of the art object seen in the works of the artists mentioned above. [16]

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3
Pitseolak Ashoona, In Summer There Were Always Big Mosquitoes, Kinngait – Cape Dorset, 1970, Porous Pointed Pen on Paper. (Part of Pitseolak: Pictures from my Life)

Jessie Oonark (1906-1985) uses traditional tasks such as processing and sewing caribou and sealskin to make clothing as inspiration for the decorative aesthetic quality presented in her work. Her works are often visual narratives on Inuit Women combined with shamanistic iconography conveying their strength and resilience. For instance, Female Shaman with Spirit Helpers (FIG 8) manages to appear concurrently playful yet stately juxtaposing the decorative skill of making traditional clothing with expressive storytelling. Her work remains in the setting of the past in keeping with Marion Jackson’s theory.[17]

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3
Jessie Oonark, Female Shaman with Spirit Helpers, Qamani’tuaq – Baker Lake, 1970, coloured pencil and graphite on paper

Artists Born around the Second Quarter

Contrastingly to these artists, Pudlo Pudlat (1916-1992), Kenojuak Ashevak (1927-2013) and Kananginak Pootoogook (1935-2010) convey a literal acknowledgement of Modernity and a strong sense of self expression, that challenges the expected notions of authentic Inuit Art.

Even though Pudlo Pudlat was born in the 1st quarter, he embraced new iconography in his work. He tends to align with that of the second generation whilst in-keeping with the narrative focus of the 1st generation. Inspired by the compositional elements of Oonark’s work and her use of colour and pattern, he delivered whimsical drawings and paintings fusing modernity with traditional elements of Inuit life. The quirky depictions of hybrid culture present in the Arctic reflect a growing curiosity for new technology and new ways of life altering the Inuit landscape. Since 1976, his inclusion of modernity became canon for his work and essentially a continuum between two very different periods sparking new metaphors of transformation. The most prominent motif in his work is the aeroplane. In relation to Shamanism and Spirit, the aeroplanes form can be comparable to birds – a contemporary symbol of physical transcendence. Using modernity, he cleverly captures the ‘old world’. For example, in Vision of the Two Worlds (FIG 9), he constructs the image of the plane in a more organic form, almost like wings of a bird. He captures the correlation between flight and the mystical in a satirical and playful manner as the foreground is encompassed by a person in traditional Inuit clothing riding a Musk Oxe staring at the aeroplane in awe.[18]

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3
Pudlo Pudlat, Vision of Two Worlds, Kinngait – Cape Dorset, 1983, lithograph and stencil

Kenojuak Ashevak used her humour and curiosity to develop a highly personal style that has helped her become arguably the most renowned Inuit Artist. She portrayed animals, humans and spirits within the context of her surrounding environment with a particular fascination with birds. Her work in contrast with the aforementioned is more aesthetically focused rather than creating a narrative as seen in her captivating print The Enchanted Owl (FIG 10). Through subtle combinations of colour and differing patterns she captured both the naturalism of the Owl and the spirituality it represents.

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3
Kenojuak Ashevak, The Enchanted Owl, Kinngait – Cape dorset, 1960, Stone cut on Paper

Kanaginak Pootoogook developed a strong personal ‘social realist’ style that defined him as an artist and an advocate for Inuit culture. Like the other older artists, he initially depicted the remote object in a naturalistic manner. However, he subsequently developed a documentarian approach to his work depicting a changing cultural landscape that would serve as the approach adopted by many contemporary Inuit including his niece Annie Pootoogook.[19] He saw his work as a platform for displaying social commentary where he could present both positive and negative cultural changes in his community. For example, in RCMP and Inuit Family (FIG 11), he depicts an Inuit Family confronted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in a realistic manner. The expressive quality of the characters shows the audience an example of the incongruous situations Inuit found themselves in and the new hybrid culture around them.

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 3
Kananginak Pootoogook, RCMP and Inuit Family, Kinngait – Cape Dorset, 2007, Coloured Pencil and Ink on Paper

It is evident that Marion Jackson’s theory does show a correlation between the generation of artist and what their art looked like and represented. It’s correct that artists born at the turn of the century were more exposed to the traditional way of life and their art reflects that. It serves as a reminder of the past, not of a romanticised authentic view described by the market, but an authentic view of the past through lived experiences. The works of Parr, Kiakshuk and Luke Anguhalaq show an imperviousness to the outside world. The work of Pitseolak Ashoona and Jessie Oonark also display a strong emphasis on memory but coupled with a didactic quality. What’s evident with the next three artists is an embrace of cultural change in a more direct way. They incorporate their new cross-cultural realities within their art, thereby redefining authentic Inuit Art. Pudlo Pudlat used his art to emphasise the old world through depictions of his curiosity towards modernity. Kananginak Pootoogook created a documentarian approach to show cultural change and Kenojuak Ashevak developed a highly personal style becoming a staple in the community. Though the works of the two generations may differ, Jackson highlighted a subtle continuity in the artist self-conscious acknowledgment of change. For example, Pitseolak illustrates an acknowledgement of radical cultural change even though her art continuously relied on the past for inspiration.

“I know I have had an unusual life, born in a skin tent and living to hear about the moon landing on the radio,”

Pitseolak shares her awareness of change in an interview.[20]

The individualisation of the artist confronted the preconceived perceptions on the role of the Inuit Artist as a means of economic survival. As their art became individually recognised, their personal styles and approaches towards their art challenged the static nature of authentic Inuit Art conceived by the market. Whereas an idealized version of the nomadic lifestyle of Inuit was presented through early contemporary Inuit Art, Inuit Artists were increasingly disconnected from that heritage as a result of colonisation. This has foreshadowed the experimental, ironic and highly individualistic works of the contemporary Inuit Art scene discussed in the next chapter.

[1] Houston, A. (1988). Inuit Art, (Winnipeg Manitoba, Watson & Dwyer Pub, 1988)

[2] McMaster, G., “Inuit Modern: An Introduction” in G. McMaster & I. Hessel, Inuit Modern, (Toronto, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011) pp.3-6

[3] Carpenter, E, Eskimo Realities (New York: Rinehart & Winston, 1973), p. 201

[4] Hessel, I., “The Rise of the Individual Artist” in G. McMaster & I. Hessel, Inuit Modern, (Toronto, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011) p.105

[5] Graburn, Nelson H. H. ed. Ethic and tourist arts: Cultural Expressions from the fourth world (Berkley: University of California Press, 1976), pp.21-23

[6] Hessel (2011), pp,105-106

[7] Robert McGhee, “Inuit History, Inuit Art,” in Inuit Modern: The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection,

ed. Gerald McMaster (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario and Douglas & McIntyre Publishers Inc., 2011), p.17

[8] Pelaudeix, (2009), pp.926-928

[9] Hatt, M. and Klonk, C. (2018). Art history. (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2018) pp.80-85

[10] Jackson, M. E. “Inuit Drawings: Reflections of an Art Historian,” in Jackson and Nasby (eds.), Contemporary Inuit Drawings (Guelph, Ontario, Macdonald Stewart Art Centre) pp.7-19

[11] Hessel, (2011) p.109

[12] The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art, “Parr”, The Canadian Art Database, Accessed February 20, 2018,

[13] Warren, M. (2020) Kiakshuk — Madrona Gallery. [online] Available from: (Accessed 03 April 2020).

[14] IAF (2020) Luke Anguhadluq | Inuit Art Foundation | Artist Database. [online] Available from: (Accessed 01 April 2020).

[15] Dorothy Eber, ed, Pitseolak: Pictures out of my life (Montreal design collaborative books; Toronto: oxford university press, 1971.) p.80

[16] Hessel, (2011) p.109

[17] IAF (2020) Jessie Oonark | Inuit Art Foundation | Artist Database. [online] Available from: (Accessed 01 April 2020).

[18] Lommel. A., Shamanisms: The Beginnings of Art., Translated by Michael Bullock, (Toronto. 1967) P.103

[19]Pootoogook, K, & Hessel I. Kananginak Pootoogook: Celebrating Five Decades of Artistic Achievement. (Toronto: Museum of Inuit Art, 2010). Print. Pp.20-24

[20] Eber, (1971.) p.80

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