Placing Inuit artists in a Canadian art history presents many challenges, for their work has existed independently within its own art-historical category ever since its inception as a commercial and economic-development practice in 1949. The Inuit were still living isolated on the land until that period, three decades after the Group of Seven first exhibited its unique interpretations of the Canadian landscape and artists like Bertram Brooker and Kathleen Munn began to explore abstraction. Yet, despite the graphic virtuosity of much Inuit work, influences like modernism and abstraction have actually had little or no effect on the art being produced in the North.
Works such as Tudlik’s famous print Division of Meat (ca. 1959) may lead us to believe that these artists must have seen reproductions of the work of painters such as Paul Klee or Pablo Picasso. This is not so. Tudlik’s enigmatic print looks more like a diagram of how to divide the carcass of an animal. There is an intuitive aesthetic in the work of the Inuit. The artistic influences on their art reside not in the study of art history but in the tradition of apprenticeship that exists in the North through the cooperative studios set up in the mid-20th century. Cape Dorset is an isolated community with its own rich artistic history that remains unencumbered by the art-historical tropes that affect artists to the south.
The legendary James A. Houston, an artist and Northern Service officer who was instrumental in bringing Inuit art to the south, worked with Ohotaq Mikkigak and others in the 1950s and 1960s to create prints and handicrafts at Kinngait Studios’ first home, a government-issued building informally called the sananguavik, the place where things are made. There, Houston, known as Saumik (the left-handed one), encouraged the Inuit to make drawings from their isumanniivit—their own thoughts.
This philosophy still guides Ohotaq, born in 1936, who began drawing during the early years of the print program. Ohotaq produced his first print, Eskimo Fox Trapper, in 1961, two years after the first Cape Dorset print collection. He became less involved with drawing as the community grew, and instead worked full-time for various community agencies. However, since his retirement from his job as the caretaker of the Peter Pitseolak School in Cape Dorset, Ohotaq has again expressed an interest in drawing, and has joined younger artists like Shuvinai Ashoona and Tim Pitsiulak in the Kinngait Studios.
Ohotaq’s recent large-scale drawings are starkly different from his earlier works, which were predominantly drawings with images of birds and fish. In this new scale, sometimes as large as eight by four feet, his work has developed a very contemporary, almost abstracted style, in which he depicts landscapes, seascapes and houses from his community. One can observe certain formal similarities to such artists as the members of Painters Eleven, who pursued abstraction, “abstracting” from nature in a manner influenced by artistic developments in New York and London. Ohotaq, on the other hand, does not intend to “abstract” the landscape. His landscapes are drawn from real and imagined places, and their sweeping vistas convey a sense of the Arctic land’s vastness. They do not depict a barren Arctic, but rather one of light, colour and open space. Ohotaq’s landscapes skilfully express the epic sense of land, water and sky that epitomizes the North.
Bill Ritchie, the studio manager at Kinngait Studios, will often look through Ohotaq’s smaller drawings (60 by 75 centimetres) and see something that would translate well into a larger format. He will then suggest that the artist draw excerpts on a larger scale. During this process, the images change, becoming something new and graphic. The medium, like many contemporary drawings from the North, is pencil crayon. Ohotaq’s technique uses his entire arm and it is his grand gestures that give the work its power. He is now 76 years old, and is known to wince and rub his hands, complaining that it is very hard to hold the smaller stubs of pencils tight when drawing big, aggressive spaces of colour. It is his intuitive sense of colour that is magical in these works. With orange abutting green and blue beside yellow, the colours are at times jarring but never seem unnatural. The clouds in the sky are bright green or turquoise-blue, expressing Ohotaq’s memory of the places he depicts. In his work the viewer sees the clear northern light, the aurora borealis, the changing weather.
Inuit drawings often have an aerial perspective. Historically, these views were based on the elders’ recollections of places visited to camp or hunt and mapped out as bird’s-eye views on the page. Ohotaq’s perspective resembles the way many elders perceive their world: places are identified by memories of living on the land and of landmarks within that space. Ohotaq often writes in syllabics at the bottom of his drawings, indicating details about the scene he is depicting. In Island (2010), he writes that he “likes the colours in the ground in the springtime. It looks better like that.” In Composition (Houses in Cape Dorset) (2011) he writes, “these are the houses in the RC Valley (where the Roman Catholic Church was) except one which didn’t get built.” The fact that these landscapes are identified is very typical of Inuit art. Landscapes done by Inuit artists, no matter how stylized or abstracted, are seldom mere impressions of a landscape; they reflect records and memories of a recognizable site.
Ohotaq is part of a shrinking generation of artists that was formative in the creation of Inuit art as it is now known. These new works expand on Inuit landscape traditions. The colour, the form and the aerial perspective combine in a delicious mixture to enliven and animate Ohotaq’s representations of the place from which he comes. The expansion in scale to large-format drawings also helps to convey the vastness of the Arctic landscape. For inspiration, Ohotaq looks not to a colonial art-historical past, but rather to his forefathers, the artists before him and beside him, and to the land itself.
Ohotaq Mikkigak will be present at the opening of a new exhibition of his work on November 3 from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at Feheley Fine Arts, 65 George Street, Toronto. The exhibition will run until November 24.