Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 5

Re-Writing the Narrative

Inuit Art is the outcome of Cross culture encounters. This is what has defined the last 60 years. While it was initially, categorised as a vague ethnographic facet of global cultural art, it has since developed into diverse art forms that recognises both its roots through the forces of colonialism, and the talents of its individual artists.[1] Since Annie Pootoogook won the Sobey award in 2006, it has become apparent that Inuit Art is being understood as an autonomous aesthetic practice rather than a fixed determined artefact. However, whilst artists have taken to postmodernist individualism and self-expression to new heights, there still remains a subtle collusion between Inuit Artists’ and the art market’s concern for nostalgic subject matter.[2] Even today the market prefers works that are suitably exotic, beautiful and politically neutral. In a conversation with a gallerist after purchasing Pudlo Pudlat’s print Imposed Migration it was suggested to Deborah Root that for most buyers “authenticity resides in the ethnographic present, a timeless place uncorrupted by modernity.”[3]

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 5

The irony is how authenticity in a contemporary art paradigm outside of Inuit Art does not have this expectation. One can argue that here, disturbing images are seen more as ‘real’ compared to ‘beautiful ones’. Authenticity is in itself a loaded category. Some may consider Inuit Art inauthentic because it includes southern elements. Others have stated that the art itself is inauthentic because it was a tradition constructed/imported. What is more important however is about the work itself and therefore the question arises, how can something be “authentic” if it is predominately market created? This was demonstrated through the platform of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.

Inukshuk: Inuit or Canadian Identity?

The game’s logo is a prime example of how Inuit culture became a national symbol of Canada and sparked a new conversation on symbols of authenticity. The Inukshuk is a structure made up of piled stones and were traditionally used for navigation and markers of sacred and solemn places. Recently it has served more decorative purposes and symbolic ones such as its place at the centre of the Nunavut flag. Misha Mantel, an Inuit Art historian wrote an essay on the nature of Inuit Art in the 21st century up until 2010, the year of the Olympics. Now in 2020, we are able to see the change that has occurred over the last 10 years in comparison to her observations and predictions in 2010. During the games, she highlighted that the Olympics provided a global platform for Inuit culture. She argues that the lone Inukshuk had quickly become a recognisable symbol of modern Canada, yet it says more about Canadian identity than Inuit identity.[4] The symbol became a commodity, a cash cow for Canadians. She asked two questions going into the next ten years: Will people see this symbol more than just a marketing tool? Will this raise the awareness of Inuit Art and alter the general consciousness surrounding it? Concluding on those questions she ends her essay on an optimistic note telling readers, “I hope so…to ensure new generations of artists do not share the same problems of those who came before.”[5]  

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 5
Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games Inuksuk Emblem
Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 5
Example of Inukshuk
Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 5

Foreigners visiting Canada see many Inukshuks in airports, tourist shops and galleries, whereby it has known to be more associated with Canadian rather than Inuit. This creates a paradox in Inuit representation, where acclaimed Inuit Artists entering the fine art paradigm trying to portray authentic Inuit Art through depictions of lived realities are subsumed by the demand for mass produced airport art like the Inuksuk. Inuit have been producing the Inukshuk in mass quantities to meet market demands with little reference to its now lost meaning for the Inuit. This in my view highlights the questionable role of the Inuit Artist. Inuit Art production was introduced as a means of economic survival for Inuit; therefore, it is easy to question why assimilation of Inuit identity within Canadian Identity is problematic. Some would argue that this would in fact increase exposure for Inuit Artists on a wider scale.[6] However, this point fails to address that this perceived hybridity is in fact the effect of colonialism and therefore preserving a romanticised view of the North.

I see the Olympics as a shift in thinking where Inuit realised the need to rekindle their narrative of Inuit Art history. They recognised the power of their work as a conduit of knowledge and this is most prominently seen through a new revival of the centre of Inuit Art in Kinngait.

Kinngait: The Centre for Inuit Art

Kinngait studios has undergone major renovations in the last few years and this is no coincidence. Formerly known as Cape Dorset, it has been known as the main hub for Inuit Art production and has been pivotal in the transformation of the Inuit north. It serves as a testament to the development of artmaking and this has been proved time and time again with the annual Cape Dorset Print collection since 1959. The studios have always been a place of work for artists, however the emergence of new employment opportunities outside the studios leaves little time for artmaking.[7]

Kinngait is not just the physical centre for Inuit Art with their new studios, embodying the idea of Inuit culture, but signifying the Inuit narrative in a truly post-colonial setting. It has become more than a place of art production but a place of teaching and guidance, and above all, the preservation of Inuit culture. Without a doubt the legacy of traditional Inuit ways continues to impact the production of work. However, through more personal and conceptually rich styles, contemporary Inuit Artists are slowly beginning to engage with their audiences in their work through conversations that expand the idealised expectations of the Inuit North partially due to the scrutiny of aesthetic considerations in the contemporary art world and partially through a newly found desire for nostalgia.

The desire for the nostalgic past has arisen in recent times, as most of the first generation are no longer around and especially, given the exposure Inuit Art and culture has received within this decade. Artists are asking questions of heritage and their desire to preserve a long-lost identity. A potential reason for a return to tradition, as suggested by Ingo Hessel, is that younger artists growing up in the villages and colonies had a differing idea of reality to the older generation. He suggests that, the land, and the camps have an ‘air of unreality’ for them and links this idea to what is being represented in their art. Aside from outside influences, subject matter begins to shift from being primarily animal and spirt based to themes of more societal and of personal relevance.

Diversifying Inuit Art

Alongside the desire for nostalgia, the personalisation of Inuit Art also introduced new mediums and themes that expanded the diversity of the art form beyond the already well-established category of Inuit Art. As seen in Chapter two, acknowledgment of anything non-Inuit that directly collapsed the illusion of “Authentic Inuit Art” and was discouraged by non-Inuit Promoters such as Houston, and the market. This was further expanded to non-Arctic materials. As George Swinton says, “For purists, such as Edmund Carpenter, the exposure to and use of new materials are the evil aspects of cultural degradation.” In other words, promoters of Inuit Art feared that implementation of materials found outside the arctic would hurt the perceived authenticity of Inuit Art. Swinton a progressive and collector of Inuit Art, advocated for modernity and the benefits it would bring to Inuit and their art production. “To the Eskimo, new materials, have inevitably been a source of enrichment and stimulation.”[8]


Swinton’s words are still relevant today as Inuit Cinematography is arguably the newest form of Inuit Art. As part of redefining the Inuit narrative through art, Cinematography has become an effective medium to reach a wider audience. Providing an alternative to Western style film and television, they are able to conserve Inuit knowledge and broadcast it to the world and present it through a new visual language that is universal. Isuma Productions was the first Inuit video-based production company founded in 1990 with a mission to challenge stereotypes about the Inuit way of life.[9] The film collective’s mandate is to illuminate Inuit history and traditional themes, to highlight artists interests as opposed to adhering to the standards created by non-Inuit for economic reasons. The new medium re-conceptualises the heritage of Inuit through a narrative controlled by Inuit. This is further highlighted though its accessibility as all Isuma Production films are available for free via IsumaTV. Thus, Inuit cinematography redefines Authentic Inuit Art de-colonising the idea that the role of Inuit Art is economically driven.[10]

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 5

The artistic success of cinematography has had far-reaching success on an International level furthering its mandate. Though Isuma is most well-known for their 2001 film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) which was awarded the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, I believe their impact is felt even more today as in 2019, Isuma was represented in the Canadian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, marking the first time Inuit works were displayed within the Pavilion. The aim of the exhibition was to show the forced relocation of families from an Inuit point of view to a truly global audience and to emphasise the tension between Canada and the Arctic.[11] Although this is presented through the main film it is also cleverly constructed through the pavilion entrance. Drouin-Brisebois, the co-curator, says the juxtaposition of the words, Canada and Isuma written on opposite sides of the building is enigmatic of the interconnected yet highly dichotomic history shared by both Canada and the Inuit North share.[12] I interpret this as a metaphor for the evolving idea of authentic Inuit Art cementing its place within the contemporary fine art paradigm.

Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 5
Interior of the Canadian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019
Inuit Art: Constructing the Authentic View Part 5
Exterior of the Canadian Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, 2019

Since the Olympics, as Mantel anticipated, Inuit Art has transcended from representing an imaginary Canadian identity to presenting Inuit identity in their new reality. However, through hindsight and upon reflection, there have been challenges to the questions she posed. Whichever way authenticity is articulated under the Inuit context, whether it denotes the traditional or a suggestive gritty contemporary reality, the question still remains of who is deciding what is genuine and why has it taken so long for such an acknowledgement.[13]

Taking back control over their narrative, this has not resolved the issue of presenting an authentic view of the Arctic. Inuit Art has diversified and individualised to establish its presence in the Contemporary fine art paradigm. They have more freedom of self-expression and have the backing of Kinngait Studios; however, authenticity resides as a key component of presenting work. For instance, it may be true Isuma are creating films to highlight Inuit culture and present history from an Inuit perspective, yet at its core, it is concerned with portraying an authentic view of the Arctic. Thus, it can be argued that the colonising notion of authenticity is still tied to the identity of Inuit Art.

[1] St-Onge, (2012) p.73

[2] Graburn, (1987), p.56

[3] Root, (2007), p.30

[4] Mantel, M., “Inuit Art in the Twenty-First Century” in K. Mantel & H. Lane, Tuvaq, (Bristol, Sansom & Company, 2010) pp. 234-236

[5] Mantel, (2010) p. 237

[6] Mahood, G. The Art of Colonialism: Inventing Canadian Identity through Inuit Soapstone Carving. (Concordia University. 2010) (Degree of Master of Art). Pp.91-95

[8] Swinton, (1999), p.135.

[9] St-Onge, (2012) p.80

[10] “IsumaTV Homepage,” IsumaTV, accessed July 28, 2011,

[11] Sandals, L. Zacharias Kunuk’s Views on the Isuma Venice Biennale Project. (2019)  [online] Available from: (Accessed 03 April 2020).

[12] Robb, P. Inuit collective Isuma steps onto the world stage at Venice Biennale – ARTSFILE. (2020)

[13] Root, (2007), p.35

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