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Life on the Land

Life on the Land

Friday 26 July - Saturday 10 August 2013

See: Opening times for the exhibition and the Museum

Sharing the hunt by Helen Kalvak, Ulukhaktok 1985 (Y: 2010/10/46)This small selection of Inuit art works on paper features domestic and hunting scenes which capture a vanishing way of life and reveal the daily struggle to survive. In a culture where keen observation of wildlife was essential to survival, the artists depict the animals and birds which sustain the community, skilfully capturing their form and personality.

Elegant birds, polar bears and caribou figure alongside scenes from summer and winter camps. The print works focus on life as it once was for the people who lived on the land, hunting different animals according to the season. They convey a wonderful sense of humour and show the story of the hunt from setting out the tools, summoning the spirits of the prey working together to build igloos and drive dog teams to sharing the spoils and preparing skins for clothing.

The prints are accompanied by four representative carvings of prey animals.

This exhibition has been made possible by a Heritage Lottery Fund Collecting Cultures grant, which has enabled the Polar Museum to acquire a range of new print works and carvings from many communities across the Canadian North.

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Print Making

The first catalogued collection of graphic art was produced in the Cape Dorset (now known as Kinngait) print studio in 1959. Since then, with the exception of the combined collection of 1964 and 1965, there have been annual Cape Dorset print releases, each documented with a fully illustrated catalogue. In the 1960s, many Inuit still lived in camps and would make drawings in their traditional environment. During the next visit to the trading post, the artists would present their finished work for sale to the cooperative in the hope of having one or more made into limited edition stonecuts, stencils, or engravings. Lucy, Pitseolak and Pudlo, now some of the most recognized names in Inuit graphic art, were part of the core group who produced the early prints.

Plucking a duck by Helen Kalvak. (Ulukhaktok) 1982 (Y:2010/10/48)

Today, most artists work from their homes in Cape Dorset and more recent printing techniques also include lithographs, etchings and aquatints. Although many of the early artists have died, a new generation has emerged, also expressing their unique vision in strong compositions and compelling images. In spite of the tremendous challenges involved in producing a body of work for a complete and varied collection, the Cape Dorset print shop became the model for other communities, including Holman (Ulukhaktok), Pangnirtung (Panniqtuuq), and Povungnituk (Puvirnituq). Through their artwork, the artists, in collaboration with the printers who interpret and transfer the drawings to paper, not only depict, but also document their culture in a direct and compelling way. Apart from their aesthetic appeal, Inuit works on paper offer invaluable documentation and insights into a culture that endured largely untouched until the middle of the 20th century.

Print marks and inscriptions

Authentic Inuit prints are usually marked with identifying information such as hand-stamped symbols, often with handwritten pencil inscriptions, which usually include the print title in English and/or Inuktitut syllabics, the community or cooperative, date and the edition number/total edition e.g. 12/50. The edition number is solely an identification and is not indicative of the order in which a print was pulled within an edition. A low or high number has no bearing on quality as may be the case with prints made elsewhere.

Occasionally, Arctic Québec artists indicate the use of the stonecut technique in syllabics; some communities do not write technique on the prints.

The date is usually, but not necessarily, the collection year. In the early days when prints were sent South by sea lift, they were usually dated the year prior to issue or when editioned. Today the date usually corresponds to the release date.

The artist's name is usually given in syllabics and the artist usually signs his or her name in pencil. Holman (Ulukhaktok) artists and printers do not use syllabic signatures. Especially in Pangnirtung (Pangniqtuuq), but also in some of the other communities, the syllabic shaped like a backwards "L" or "_", "in behalf of", used before and/or after the syllabic signature on a print, indicates that someone other than the artist signed the work. The "substitute signer" is usually a member of the family, who has been asked to authenticate he prints because of the illness or death of a relative. The device has also been used upon occasion when the artist has left the community before the edition is completed.

The artist's name is followed by the printer's name in English and sometimes in Inuktitut syllabics. Current practice dictates this order and from it follows the assumption that if only one name appears on the print that the artist was also the printer. Occasionally, on some prints, artist and printer names have been switched inadvertently. However for the 1977 Baker Lake (Qamani'tuaq) collection, the position of the artist and printer were reversed deliberately to honor by emphasis the technical skill required of the printer. Although not unheard of in early collections, in more recent years, personal printer chops (stamps) have been used on a more regular basis in Cape Dorset (Kinngait), Holman and Pangnirtung, and/or the printers may also sign in syllabics. In early Cape Dorset annual collections and Holman and Povungnnituk (Puvirnituq) experimental collections, elaborate, hand-carved chops were used to identify artists as well.

A pictographic symbol for the originating co-operative or community is usually positioned on the line with the handwritten inscriptions. However, Cape Dorset prints other than lithos carry a vertical, Japanese-style arrangement of artist/printer/co-op stamps)which appears randomly on the paper, often within the image area. The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council Symbol usually appeared on the edge of the paper outside the image area. First printed in black in 1961, it was blind-embossed on each print from 1962. Translated, the syllabics read, "namatuk" or "genuine", and the symbol's appearance on a print meant that it was authentic and that the design and technique met the professional standards of the CEAC. Members were appointed by the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs as an advisory body to the Minister, the Co-operatives and the artists. The symbol did not imply that each print within an edition was scrutinized separately.

Although the CEAC symbol does not appear on prints from the 1957-1960 Cape Dorset collections, the 1964-1969 Povungnituk collections, Northern editions and some special commission prints, these prints are nevertheless authentic and well-recorded.

The Council was dissolved in September 1989, and there is no longer any outside structure for authenticating prints. The individual Co-op or community symbols remain the guarantee of genuine Inuit-produced graphics.

Some information may be contained within the print image. Especially in Arctic Québec, it has often been the practice to incise a story or statement or artist/printer names into the printing block. Often the writing is in syllabics and sometimes appears backwards on the print, because the artist has worked directly on the plate. Early on, Holman artists frequently cut their names into the stones as well.

Printmaking techniques

Inuit communities normally produce a small number of prints each year in limited editions of 25-50 using a variety of techniques:

Stone cut
The stone cut was invented in Cape Dorset. A flat stone block is smoothed by sanding and filing and the negative image taken from an original design is then traced onto the stone. The artist usually transfers the original drawing to the stone block. Ink is added to the stone. The printer takes over and transfers the images to paper using a burnishing tool known as a baren. With the stone cut method every print is unique, as no two will be exactly the same.

From the original drawing, a mylar (polyester film) stencil is cut for each different colour to be used in the finished print. Once the shapes have been cut from the mylar, the image is transferred directly onto the paper by pressing ink through the stencil using stippling brushes.
The texture of the image varies with the intensity of the ink applied. This technique gives the effect of a soft brushed colour. Colours are applied in sequence throughout the whole edition of the print. In the early days of printmaking, experiments using seal and other animal skins were soon abandoned in favour of modern materials as the natural hides were prone to stretching, distorting the stencilled image.

Lino cut and woodcut
These are the most common methods used in printmaking, except in Cape Dorset where stone cut is more usual. The artist draws on the surface of a smooth block of wood or lino. The surface on either side of the lines in the drawing is then cut away, leaving the drawing in relief. When the carving is finished, the surface of the block is inked. Pressure is applied, using either a small printing press or a wooden spoon. This transfer lifts the ink from the raised portions of the block to the paper, leaving a slightly embossed texture. The paper is lifted and, if more than one colour is used, the next block from another colour is inked and the paper carefully repositioned. This process is repeated until all the colours are printed. A relief print similar to a woodcut but using cardboard produces a softer effect. The process was tried experimentally in Povungnituk in 1962.

A print resembling a water-colour is produced from a copper plate etched with nitric acid.

Prints are made from a metal plate into which the design has been cut by acid.

Using a wax crayon, the artist draws directly onto the surface of a stone block or on a thin zinc or aluminium plate. Each colour to be used in the image has a separate plate. The surface is etched with a diluted mixture of acid and gum arabic. This mixture fixes the image onto the surface and makes the areas without crayon more receptive to water. A thin film of water is sponged over the surface and greasy lithographic ink is applied with a roller. The greasy ink adheres to the drawn areas but is repelled by the dampened areas.

(We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the National Gallery of Canada in compiling this information).