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An Inuit Master Carver: Niviaksiak (1908–1959) « The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

An Inuit Master Carver: Niviaksiak (1908–1959)

A visit by Mr Ian Miller on 6 August 2014 to investigate our Inuit Art collection sparked an interesting line of research. He brought with him a range of very interesting Inuit carvings from his own collection, including a sculpture of a hunter which he wanted particularly to compare with one in The Polar Museum, which he had found in our online catalogue.


Above: carving of a hunter carrying a cub, Niviaksiak, Polar Museum Y: 2010/10/82

When placed side by side, it was immediately evident that these pieces were by the same hand and our Keeper of Collections, Heather Lane, was delighted to be able to confirm the identity of the stonecarver.

The Polar Museum sculpture next to Ian Miller's piece

Above: the Polar Museum's carving (left) next to Ian Miller's sculpture

Niviaksiak was born in 1908 and died in 1959 whilst hunting a polar bear. His early death ended a promising career as an artist. A renowned sculptor, Niviaksiak was one of the first Inuit artists to make a print and, despite his short career in the early and experimental period of the Cape Dorset co-operative, he made some extraordinary works. Cape Dorset (now called Kinngait) was the first community to attempt printmaking, under the enthusiastic leadership of James Houston, an artist and employee of the Department of Northern Affairs. The earliest experiments used sealskin stencils (later replaced by stencil paper) and stonecuts. The sources for the earliest images were incised tusks and inlaid sealskin designs. Houston encouraged people to draw, and purchased drawings as resources for the printmakers. Their first collection was released in 1959 and immediately sold well to enthusiastic audiences in the south. Copperplate engraving was introduced in 1961, and lithography in 1962 by Terry Ryan, who followed Houston as the artists’ principal advisor. Cape Dorset prints are still released in annual catalogued collections, and remain among the most sought after by collectors.

Kinngait (population 1,240 in 2006) is now a thriving regional centre for arts and tourism. The Hudson's Bay Company had established a trading post here in 1913. A Roman Catholic mission was established in 1938 but closed in 1960 as the majority of the residents are of the Anglican faith. In 1953, the Inuit of Cape Dorset built the Anglican Church on their own initiative. In the same year, the artist James Houston arrived in the community, having already spent some time in Arctic Quebec investigating, on behalf of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, the potential for Inuit Art. He and his wife Alma, together with their sons, spent ten years in Cape Dorset, finding gifted artists, encouraging carving and handicraft production and, after a research period in Japan, introduced print-making to broaden the artistic horizons of the Inuit in Cape Dorset. As a result, the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative was formally founded in 1959. In that year the first major exhibition of Cape Dorset Inuit sculpture was held at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. It was a success and carving and graphic art have now become the economic mainstay of the community.

Time Magazine reported Niviaksiak’s passing in 1960:

No artists live a more hazardous life. In the last year, two of Cape Dorset's twelve printmakers have met death on the ice fields. One of the deaths has given the new art form its first legend. Niviaksiak, 51, was already a famous carver when he took up prints. Of all the subjects he portrayed, the one that preyed most on his mind was bears. During the last months of his life, he pondered deeply on the soul of the great, inscrutable polar bear. Three months ago Niviaksiak and a young companion were tracking a bear. After several hours they finally caught sight of him. As they crept closer, the bear, instead of running, turned and gazed squarely at them. Niviaksiak moved in, raised his rifle to fire, then faltered and shrieked: ‘It's dark. I'm falling!’ Without firing, he collapsed on the snow, died within minutes. The next day, when Niviaksiak's companion and others returned to bury him, they found his body unmauled; the bear had not even come near him. Among Cape Dorset people there was only one explanation: Niviaksiak's art had probed too near, had offended the spirit of the great polar bear.

Niviaksiak Man at Seal Hole

Niviaksiak’s artwork has become highly prized by collectors in recent years. In 2008, at the Waddington’s annual auction in Toronto, the striking image in brilliant blue of a hunter waiting to strike – Man Hunting at a Seal Hole in the Ice – a 1959 skin stencil from the inaugural Cape Dorset collection, was finally sold for $64,600 CAD including buyer’s premium, a record price at auction for an Inuit graphic.

Impressions of Man Hunting at a Seal Hole are in The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection which was donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 1959, Niviaksiak’s print Polar Bear and Cub was used for a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which also holds a copy.

Left: Man Hunting at a Seal Hole in the Ice by Niviaksiak (1959)


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