A travelling exhibit of striking Inuit prints from Cape Dorset on Baffin Island officially opened on the coldest day of the year at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.
The irony was not lost on the museum’s executive director, Lorna Johnson. She hoped — albeit optimistically — that Tuesday’s frigid high of -28C would create the kind of like-minded affinity that will draw Central Albertans out of their warm homes to see an exhibit from Canada’s far north.
Those unwilling to brace the arctic cold for Tuesday night’s opening reception, however, will likely have warmer opportunities to see the print display. It will be showing at the museum until April 1.
The 80 stone-cut prints from Cape Dorset are the local museum’s first exhibit from the National Gallery of Canada. This was made possible by recent museum renovations that raised the structure’s temperature and humidity controls to national museum standards, said Johnson, who believes this is a coup for Central Albertans, who can now see high-calibre exhibits that would have previously bypassed Red Deer.
This is in fact the only Alberta stop for the Uuturautilt: Cape Dorset exhibit, which celebrates 50 years of printmaking from Canada’s most artistic community.
A whopping 22 per cent of Cape Dorset’s labour force are employed in the arts, but this good-news scenario only came about after much tragedy and transition.
Johnson said a reduction in northern cariboo herds in the 1950s caused starvation among Inuit people. The federal government tried to help by encouraging Northerners to move into settlements. Ottawa also began looking for other income sources for Inuit people.
European-Canadian artist James Houston came to Cape Dorset’s rescue. He was so impressed by the community’s traditional artwork, shown in carvings and seal skin appliques on garments, that he started a graphic arts workshop in the remote centre.
After collecting drawings from community artists, Houston encouraged local Inuit stone carvers to apply their skills to stone-block printing. Johnson said this was based on the Japanese art of wood-block prints, only stone was used since it’s a more available northern resource.
The resulting skills have carried over through the decades, and Cape Dorset art prints have become known worldwide for their beauty and intricacy.
What started out as depictions of northern animals, including the loon, narwhal and polar bear, has expanded to include more current aspects of northern existence. Johnson said the children and grandchildren of the original artists have joined the printmaking workshop to create artwork that’s relevant to their lives, which are now more removed from hunting and fishing.
“Now you have prints of people going to the store or watching television,” she said — although animal and spiritual motifs are still popular.
One tongue-in-cheek print features a fox drinking coffee and having a smoke. “It’s part of a traditional belief that animal and human spirits are transferable” on a spiritual plane, said Johnson. “People can change into animals and animals can change into people.”
The exhibit also features new and old works by artist Kenojuak Ashevak, who started out with Houston and is still printmaking in her 80s. Johnson said it’s interesting to see the progression — her newer prints are larger scale and more colourful, but still bear recognizable trademarks, such as flowing feathers on birds.
Another related exhibit of Cape Dorset prints, donated to the museum’s collection by local collector Kathleen Sullivan, will be opening on Jan. 28 and running to March 4.
An Inuit film series of historic and current movies and documentaries will also be shown Sundays at 2 p.m. at the museum on Jan. 29, Feb. 5, March 4, 18 and 25.
And local people who have experienced life in the North will also speak at presentations on Sundays at 2 p.m. on Jan. 22, Feb. 12 and March 11.
For more information, call 403-309-8405.