Inuit Ceramics and Other Outliers:
Creation and Collaboration in the North and South
In response to Earthlings
Earthlings brings together the works of seven artists that employ juxtaposition, experimentation, and free-association to produce challenging and intriguing works of art. The seventy-six pieces in the show are at once strangely familiar yet disconcertingly uncanny; many of these works seem to centre on the construction of complex narratives which bring together myth, cosmology, ecology, art history, and oral history. Somewhat ironically, the term “Earthlings” conjures an alien image, and indeed the works in Earthlings may appear otherworldly—yet the exhibition reveals a shared artistic vision formed in both the north and south, bridging geographic, linguistic, and cultural divides. The exhibition presents works in ceramic and graphic media, produced both individually and collaboratively at various sites throughout the country.
Shary Boyle is the Toronto-based artist and architect of this project, whose artistic sensibilities bear a striking resemblance to her first collaborator from the North, graphic artist Shuvinai Ashoona of Kinngait (Cape Dorset). Ashoona and Boyle first exhibited together in 2009 when curator Nancy Campbell astutely paired the two in Noise Ghost at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery (now the Art Museum at the University of Toronto); two years later, when Boyle was a guest artist at Kinngait Studios, Ashoona and Boyle created their first collaborative drawing, which Ashoona titled Universal Cobra Pussy (2011). Later, in 2015, Boyle and Ashoona undertook a series of six drawings together, beginning three drawings each (in Montreal and Kinngait, respectively), which they then exchanged for the other to complete, like a surrealist exquisite corpse exercise, when Boyle returned to Baffin Island that September. The resulting series of co-produced graphic collages—in which figures both female and fantastic inhabit inky dark seascapes or airy alternate universes—were first shown in Universal Cobra that November.1
On her way to Kinngait to work with Ashoona, Boyle had a chance encounter with Winnipeg Art Gallery Director Steven Borys at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum in Iqaluit. Borys had just returned from Kangiqtiniq (Rankin Inlet), and showed Boyle photos on his phone of the ceramics he had recently viewed. Boyle had previously heard of the ceramics artists in the north, but was “blown away” by what she saw. In 2016, Boyle invited ceramicists Pierre Aupilardjuk and John Kurok, both from Kangiqtiniq, to join her at Medalta, a ceramics production and exhibition centre in the Historic Clay District of Medicine Hat, where they worked together for a month on some of the clay works in the exhibition. These works are shown alongside those of sculptors Leo Napayok and the late Roger Aksadjuak, also from Kangiqtiniq. Several works in the show are also collaborative pieces produced at the Matchbox Gallery—the Kangiqtiniq workshop and gallery that has been run by artists Jim and Sue Shirley for the past thirty years—mostly co-created by Napayok and Kurok, but also including Ceramic Bust with Drawings (n.d.) by Kurok and Jessie Kenalogak, an artist from Baker Lake who collaborated on work at Matchbox as well.
While Ashoona’s drawings and Boyle’s distinctive graphic and mixed media sculptural works may be familiar to audiences, for many visitors to Earthlings, this is likely their first encounter with Inuit ceramics. The difficulty and expense of undertaking such an artistic practice in the Arctic has meant that there is only one studio, Matchbox Gallery, that has supported this art form over the last three decades, resulting in the relatively limited output of Inuit ceramics compared to the ubiquity of stone sculpture.2 Boyle and her supporters in this project, including Medalta and the Esker Foundation, have made remarkable headway into fostering an opportunity for north-south collaboration with these Kangiqtiniq-based artists, particularly as Arctic artists have had limited access to such artistic exchanges in the past due to the high cost and difficulty of northern travel and other barriers (although it is worth noting that several of the Inuit artists in this exhibition have traveled in both the north and south to make or exhibit their work). Because of this, the idiosyncratic development of Inuit ceramics has, with few exceptions, been almost entirely located in one small community in the Kivalliq region, where multiple generations of artists have produced a rich and significant body of work.3
A Brief History of Modern Inuit Ceramics in Kangiqtiniq
While unique within the broader Inuit arts milieu, Kangiqtiniq ceramics debuted on the Canadian art scene in circumstances that both echoed the modern stone sculpture movement and dealt with similar concerns and constraints. Elsewhere, in what was then the Northwest Territories and northern Quebec, the introduction of the modern Inuit art movement was ardently supported by the federal government, because it was believed that the arts would provide a suitable replacement economy in newly settled Inuit communities during times of economic scarcity. With the falling prices of fur internationally in the 1930s and 40s—among other causes of economic depression throughout the Arctic—the production of handicrafts and carvings began to be seriously funded, encouraged, and promoted from the late 1940s onward at a time when few other financial avenues were available to Inuit in the North.
As with other Inuit arts industries introduced in the mid-twentieth century, the new clay art form was an innovation in a period of necessity that flourished into a thriving arts practice. At the time, caribou numbers in the Kivalliq region were in decline, threatening starvation and causing Inuit from throughout the region to settle and seek ongoing employment in the new community, established in 1953 to service the Rankin Inlet Nickel Mine. Unfortunately, the mine, which was opened in 1957, closed in 1962, leaving many newly settled Inuit without employment or other opportunities for self-sufficiency.4 Like elsewhere in the Canadian Arctic, the arts were proposed as an alternative industry to aid the struggling Inuit community; unlike many other regions of Nunavut, however, the available stone around Kangiqtiniq was mostly too hard and porous to produce detail or be polished (even though several Kivalliq artists, including John Tiktak, George Arluk and John Kavik, had already become well known in southern Canada by that time for their soapstone sculpture). Instead, the Industrial Division of the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources hired southern Canadian artist Claude Grenier as a local arts officer who, together with his wife Cécile, encouraged local artists to also experiment with textiles and clay. By 1964 the artists of the Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project (which included Kavik) were working with local and imported clay to create vases, bowls, and sculptural forms adorned with human and animal visages; employing coil and slab techniques, low-fire glazes; and exploring earthy tones and finishes.5 In fact, Roger Aksadjuak’s hand-formed and coil-built vessels in Earthlings, such as Beneath the Sea II and Four Dreams, demonstrate continuity with the earliest stylistic experiments in Kangiqtiniq. First generation artists such as Yvo Samgushak and Roger’s father, Laurent Aksadjuak, introduced the next generation of artists at the local arts and crafts centre to many of the hand-building techniques popularized in the first years of the initiative. Largely rejecting the pottery wheel, this preference for building vases and bowls using thin, meticulously coiled clay with appliqued animals and faces was maintained during the next wave of Kangiqtiniq ceramics in the early 1990s, and persists to this day as a popular technique for creating complex forms in the round.
As in other areas of the Inuit arts industry, from the very beginning of this new initiative there was considerable involvement from both government bureaucrats and their southern arts advisors. Following the arrival of the first samples of work in Ottawa in 1964, officials from the Department of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources expressed some anxiety about this new art form. Although some of the critiques regarded the glazing of works and other technical issues, they were primarily concerned that the works too similarly resembled Inuit stone carvings, fearing that these pieces would therefore cause confusion or have other detrimental impacts on the most successful Inuit art industry of the time. The bureaucrats balked at the complex and sculptural hand-built pieces made by Inuit—many of which were remarkably similar to some of the works found today in Earthlings, such as John Kurok’s asymmetrical pot, Dreams of Spring, with animal and human countenances intertwined into a fantastic, three dimensional depiction of a hunter’s daydream—for their belief that these works too closely approximated stone sculpture. As Stacey Neale’s extensive archival research on the early ceramics movement has revealed, although “few of them had visited Rankin Inlet for more than a day or two and their knowledge of art was limited,”6 these government officials still firmly instructed Grenier to change direction.7 The administration wanted the program to encourage the creation of more utilitarian works such as bowls and flat tiles carved in low relief that could be more easily shipped. They further insisted that members of the Canadian Eskimo Arts Committee (CEAC)—a government appointed committee consisting of curators, art historians and gallerists tasked with advising and directing the government in their efforts to foster Inuit art—review the works before they could be sold or exhibited.8 While some, like art historian George Swinton, were quick to laud the ceramic art works, others such as Arctic arts lead administrator James Houston were more critical, and even questioned whether the project should continue for a time. It was decided that to make this new form appeal to the broadest swath of the Inuit art market, “northern colours” echoing earth and lichen should be encouraged while “garish” glazes should be discouraged. Furthermore, tangential links to distant ancestors who made ceramics—shards of clay discovered during the Fifth Thule Expedition at the Naujan archeological find, and Western Arctic pottery produced from contact with North West Coast peoples—would be employed in the earliest promotion of the work.9 This marketing strategy played into romanticized notions of Arctic culture as ancient, unchanging, and primitive. The stereotypical understanding of what constituted Inuit ‘authenticity’ in the arts relied on both the spatial and communicative gap between Inuit communities in the North and the Inuit art-buying audiences in the South in the mid-twentieth century, allowing fantasies of an ancient Arctic and its peoples to inform the marketing of Inuit art.10 Such linkages to the past, however tenuous or abstract, were strategically used in the marketing of many Inuit art forms, not just ceramics, in the first decades of the development of the modern arts industry in order to satisfy market demands for ‘authenticity.’11 As Deborah Root noted in 2008, it is only recently that, “Inuit art is beginning to be understood as a vital aesthetic practice rather than a static, culturally determined artifact.”12
The first ceramics—those approved by the CEAC and baring the markers of authenticity—were introduced to the southern Canadian market in 1967, with the exhibition Keewatin Eskimo Ceramics, which was mounted at the Toronto Public Library. The show featured twelve artists, of which two, Philip Hakuluk and Michael Angutituak. were present at the opening.13 The exhibition was critically acclaimed and additional commercial exhibitions were held at thirty galleries within Canada and internationally that year. Yet, as Darlene Coward Wight has noted, “in spite of the auspicious start, sales were disappointing from 1967 to 1970,” perhaps due to unusually high prices assigned by the CEAC, or the slow reception of the audience to accept ceramics as truly Inuit art. Attempting to address the falling sales, new arts instructors soon introduced additional glazes and techniques.14 Beginning in 1970, ceramic artist Bob Billyard encouraged experimentation with the pottery wheel and introduced salt glazing and raku. In 1973, artist and author Michael Kusugak became the new Arts and Crafts Officer, and under him additional glazes of salt and local clay were developed and low relief surface decoration became popularized, up until the conclusion of the initial ceramics program in 1977.15 This detailing was taught to, and is still evident in the work of, the first and second generations of artists to work in Kangiqtiniq, although many of the glazes that were introduced in the first decades have since fallen by the wayside as artists at Matchbox today have refined and defined their personal approaches to ceramic art. In Earthlings, the style of carved relief work begun in the 1960s and 70s is evidenced in several collaborative pieces produced by John Kurok and Leo Napayok such as Three Birds and Man Holding Bird. The low-relief carving is the particular speciality of Napayok, who brings his expertise as a stone carver to the ceramics studio. Today, each of the artists in that studio have developed and perfected their own distinct signature styles and techniques, which makes their collaboratively produced works even more complex and refined. These contemporary works rival those early experiments in terms of both intricacy and density, with their many swirling figures and finely rendered textures of skin, fur and feathers delicately incised all over the surface of the works.
In 1979 the Government of the Northwest Territories hired Jim Shirley as a new Arts and Crafts Development Officer to work with Inuit artists and craftspeople and the existing arts infrastructures, particularly the Arts and Crafts Centre, located in the old craft shop building. Shirley was intrigued by the ceramics project that had ended just two years earlier; while the participating artists had largely gone on to other artistic pursuits, there was still a local interest and a pool of talented clay artists to draw upon. Within a decade he and his wife, Sue, founded the Matchbox Gallery, which would become the site of the revival and continuation of ceramics in the early 1990s.16 Under Jim’s guidance, Matchbox Gallery also began developing new processes for firing, adding a (now extremely popular) white slip terra sigillata, and experimenting with woodchip firing which gives the finished ceramics the smoky, undulating surface of brown, grey, black, and white that has become the Matchbox signature.17 Today, as one of Canada’s only privately owned, artist-run, cross-cultural gallery and workshop, it is still an active site for arts production and houses a significant permanent collection of Inuit ceramics and other locally produced art.
The Persistence of Inuit Ceramics and Other Unconventional Inuit Arts
Ultimately, as with other Inuit art forms, the fears and concerns expressed in the early years of Inuit ceramics would prove to be misplaced, even though the scale of production for ceramics remains relatively small today. While ceramic work did not threaten the sculpture industry, it is an art form that has not recently had the opportunity to be appreciated in southern Canada, perhaps because, as Neale noted in a 1999 essay, it continues to challenge “the restrictive attitudes towards what could be considered acceptable expressions for authentic Inuit art.”18
As Inuk artist Pitsey Moss-Davies argued in 2001, still relevant today:
There does appear to be a lot of linear thinking about what makes art Inuit. [It] seems like [people have a] complex idea of what makes art “Inuit,” when in my opinion, it is very simple. If an Inuk made it, it’s Inuit art. I think that it is really important for artists to create and use the materials that they want and create themes that relate to them. I think it’s important for people to realize that Inuit are living in contemporary times and have contemporary influences and access to a lot of the same things that most North Americans or people the world over have access to…and it just makes sense to me that Inuit artists would be interested in experimenting with different techniques and stones and ideas as much as anyone else.19
With the recent long-term loan of the largest collection of Inuit ceramics, the Government of Nunavut collection, to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and with this innovative touring exhibition, Earthlings, the perception, reception, and public awareness of Inuit ceramics is poised to change dramatically; it already occupies a significant space within Inuit art history in Canada. As this exhibition demonstrates, Inuit artists in Kangiqtiniq from the late 1960s to today have continued to forge their artistic vision independently, developing their mastery of the medium and refining their work, yet paying little heed to the critiques and anxieties expressed by government administrators and southern dealers about ‘authentic’ Inuit art. This is evidenced by the increasingly undeniable strength of the works, and the commitment of the artists to continue producing innovative and unconventional Inuit art. Although the output today is modest compared to some other forms of contemporary Inuit art production, Rankin Inlet ceramics persist because of the skills and knowledge passed down through the community to new artists and the tenacity and talent of the second and third generation of artists who continue to work in clay because of the freedom and spontaneity the medium affords.
In the context of the other unconventional, boundary-leaping works in Earthlings created by Ashoona and Boyle, the ceramic works in this exhibition, both fantastic and earthly, find their purchase. Created in both the North and South by artists who share a particular sensibility for non-linear, visual storytelling, Earthlings brings together work that is unusual, thoughtful, and complex. The exhibition seeks common ground among artists usually separated by geography, access, and opportunities; artists who do not usually get to occupy the same spaces in the modern art museum or western gallery. In so doing, Earthlings encourages audiences to expand, even explode, their understanding of ‘Inuit art’ and the ‘Contemporary.’
1 The exhibition was held at Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain and was co-produced with Feheley Fine Arts, and ran from November 7, 2015 to December 19, 2015.
2 It should be noted that a massive collection of Kivalliq region ceramics belonging to the Nunavut Government is currently on loan to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which also holds a major collection of these works.
3 Ceramics were briefly experimented with in Kinngait in the early 1960s as well; in fact, two Inuit artists were included in the International Exhibition of Ceramics held in Italy in 1967. Despite this, it was decided by the federal bureaucracy that this initiative should be relocated to Kangiqtiniq instead. Patricia Feheley, “Terry Ryan: A Visionary with a Pragmatic Edge. Part One: Sketching a Future,” Inuit Art Quarterly, 2009, vol. 24, no 1): 15. The first experiments with clay in 1963 were hampered by Claude Grenier’s (the local arts officer) lack of experience with ceramics; the Canadian Eskimo Art Committee (CEAC) reviewed a small exhibition of shoe-polish glazed works sanded to look like stone carvings, which the CEAC determined were not appropriate for sale. Instead, they encouraged him to promote work in pottery and to explore other glazing mediums and techniques.
4 For five years this was a steadily productive industry, but by 1960 it was determined that the ore deposit would not support further extraction. After the closure in 1962 of the mine, many in the newly settled Inuit community were forced to turn to social assistance. The government briefly advocated for community members to return to the lands where they had come from, but the community instead petitioned the government to investigate other employment opportunities. As Darlene Coward Wight has reported, there were a number of unconventional solutions proposed (a chicken farm, a seal cannery) but one solution put forth in the development of craft and art industries took hold. Darlene Coward Wight, “Ceramics in Rankin Inlet: A Continuing Tradition,” Rankin Inlet Ceramics, Winnipeg Art Gallery (2003): 7-14.
5 The local clay gave the works a slightly pebbled texture, and was also sometimes mixed with fine particles of crushed rock in order to give the ceramic work a distinct finish. For more information, see Hendrika G. Nagy, “Pottery in Keewatin,” The Beaver, (Autumn 1967): 60-66.
6 Stacey Neale, “Rankin Inlet Ceramics Part One: A Study in Development and Influence,” Inuit Art Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 1 (spring 1999): 12.
7 The Industrial Division’s Donald Snowdon declared in a 1964 telegram, “Initial pottery project was for bowls with Eskimo Motifs. Pls [sic] undertake this work immediately. Have serious doubts about clay versions of traditional stone carving forms. Undoubtedly damaging to carving market. Pls [sic] stop production of figurines in clay until further notice.” Stacey Neale, “Rankin Inlet Ceramics Part One,” 10.
8 As the success of Inuit art grew, it was paralleled by a growing concern about the regulation of Inuit artistic production. In 1961, this led to the formation of the Canadian Eskimo Arts Committee (CEAC). First established by the federal government to develop an arts and marketing strategy for the Kinngait Studios West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative (WBEC) annual print sale, the CEAC soon extended its work to include advising on many other facets of Inuit arts, including the expansion of the print industry to other communities. These government appointed curators, writers, artists, and gallerists collaborated to steer the direction of Inuit art. The mandate of the CEAC was to maintain high standards of arts and crafts quality (based on their own mid-century notions of ‘quality’); advise on how to promote and circulate the works to markets; provide instruction on techniques, including, significantly here, the introduction of new techniques; and to undertake copyright protection and compensation. Yet the CEAC was frequently met with critique from both the public and the media, who, as CEAC member Virginia Watt has noted, declared that the CEAC was “directing the innocent unsophisticated Eskimo along wayward civilized paths, corrupting their traditional culture and, in general, exploiting their native ability.” Watt adds that the word “censorship” was frequently employed to describe the efforts of the CEAC. “The committee,” Watt noted, “became an entity which its critics “loved to hate.”” Virginia Watt, “The Canadian Eskimo Arts Council did not Limp onto the Scene,” Inuit Art Quarterly, vol. 8 no. 4 (Winter 1993): 53.
9 Although some tried to establish a link between contemporary Inuit ceramics and ancient Inuit practices, the connection was extremely tenuous, with almost no archeological evidence—aside from the fact that the Inuit’s ancient Mongolian ancestors were excellent potters and a few shards of pottery had been discovered in Pre-Dorset camps. For example, Donald Snowden, Chief of the Industrial Division, approached the National Museum of Man to get information about the possibility of these ancestral links. The response from Mr. Wight of the National Museum of Man was clear: “[He] said that as far as he could determine, pottery-making was not traditionally a part of Eskimo culture and it only developed in areas where Eskimos and Indians were living in close association.” Despite this, in 1967 the ambiguity around the possible history of ‘Eskimo’ ceramics was exploited to market these works. Stacey Neale, “The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project: Part Two: The Quest for Authenticity,” Inuit Art Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, (Summer 1999): 9.
10 For more on this history see Kristen K. Potter, “James Houston, Armchair Tourism, and the Marketing of Inuit Art.” Native American Art in the Twentieth Century: Makers, Meanings, Histories. Edited by W. Jackson Rushing III. (New York: Routledge, 1999): 39-56.
11 This promotional approach of associating modern Inuit art with romanticized ideas about an imagined primitive past was not limited to stone or ceramics, either. For example, the introduction of weaving in Pangnirtung in the early 1970s was likewise greeted with some skepticism. Yet, like Rankin Inlet ceramics, the tapestry studio in the Uqqurmiut Centre for Arts and Crafts has gone on to achieve great success, perhaps in part due to the familiarity of the subject matter often depicted in the narrative works as well as the efforts made by its supporters to link this new practice with historical antecedents. As Deborah Hickman wrote in her catalogue essay for Nuvisavik: The Place Where we Weave, “while it is in keeping with the Inuit artistic heritage of drawing (incising into ivory) and pictorial storytelling in prehistoric, historic, and contemporary times, it also draws on a technical craft originating in ancient times. Although tapestry weaving came relatively recently to the north, the Pangnirtung tapestries are part of a long and rich world tradition of narrative artistic expression through weaving.” Deborah Hickman, “Tapestry: A Northern Legacy.” Nuvisavik: The Place Where We Weave, ed. Maria von Finckenstein (Montreal and Kingston: Canadian Museum of Civilization / McGill-Queens University Press, 2002): 45.
12 Deborah Root, “Inuit Art and the Limits of Authenticity,” Inuit Art Quarterly, 23, no. 2 (2008): 18-26.
13 This included the additional artists Donat Anawak, Joseph Angatajuak, Lucien Tutuk Kabluitok, Octave Kappi, John Kavik, Pie Kukshout, Joseph Patterk, Robert Tatty, Eli Tikeayak, and Yvo Samgushak.
14 In an attempt to improve the quality of the works (according to southern notions) the Northwest Territories government assumed control of the arts related economic development projects, reassigning Grenier in 1970 and hiring a replacement who had a background in ceramics, Robert Billyard, who, with the assistance of his ceramics instructor Charlie Scott, introduced new techniques and materials to the workshop, teaching the artists how to refine their work, and adding raku and other glazing and finishing techniques to their repertoire. Neale, “Ceramics in Rankin Inlet: A Continuing Tradition,” 9.
15 When Kusugak became the new Arts and Crafts Officer, Charlie Scott returned to assist Kusugak in his new work, and together they added glazes that gave the pottery a brown slip surface known as “Terra sigillata,” an ultra-fine clay slip used by ancient Greeks and Romans, and still popular at Matchbox today. Under Kusugak a new low relief surface decoration became popularized, and this detailing was taught to, and is still evident in the work of, such artists as Yvo Samgushak and Laurent Aksadjuak, who continued to work until the studio closed in 1977. The craft shop stayed open until 1987. Ibid.
16 For a history of Matchbox Gallery, please visit www.matchboxgallery.com. Last accessed July 10, 2017.
17 Jim Shirley, “Visions & Dreams in Clay,” Rankin Inlet Ceramics, Winnipeg Art Gallery (2003): 55-56.
18 Stacey Neale, “The Rankin Inlet Ceramics Project: Part Two: The Quest for Authenticity,” Inuit Art Quarterly, Vol. 14, No. 2, (Summer 1999): 16.
19 Heather Campbell, “Urban Inuit Artists,” Inuit Art Quarterly, Vol.16, no.2 (Summer 2001): 9-10.