In late June, I unexpectedly found myself at the offices of la Fédération des coopératives du Nouveau-Québec in Baie-D’Urfé, QC, where I was lucky enough to get a private look at the vast selection of archived prints from the community of Inukjuak, QC, created from 1975 to 1976. There were more than 100 prints in the archive, most of which had been rejected from broader production for myriad reasons, as well as some original artist proofs from prints released in the catalogue Arctic Quebec 1975. Before I saw the originals, I had perused the publication, featuring prints by Inukjuak artists Daniel Inukpuk (1942–2015), Thomassie Echaluk (1935–2011), Jobie Ohaituk and one by Lucassie Echalook. All of the prints I saw were breathtaking and unique, and excitement radiated from the Sales Director Richard Murdoch who showed them to me.
These original prints had not seen the light of day since the early 1990s, and have rarely been viewed since their creation more than forty years ago. The same year they were produced, the first comprehensive Indigenous land claim was signed and the Inuit of Nunavik were forced to make choices and take actions that would resonate through history. Thus, the artwork of that period is particularly important and interesting. In the catalogue, traditional ways are juxtaposed and set alongside the new realities of settled life, as the politically charged atmosphere hung over all who dwelt in the northern region of the province.
The village scenes by Daniel Inukpuk and Thomassie Echaluk are especially poignant as it seems so little has changed in Inukjuak and the other Nunavik communities. Both are set next to the Inukjuak River. Echaluk’s is peaceful and serene, the river is calm and all seems well, while Inukpuk’s interpretation is more energetic, the rushing water with dogs in varying degrees of rest and restlessness tied nearby. The powerlines in each should not be taken for granted, as these too were a new fixture in communities, along with the houses and the concept that dogs should be leashed at all. Though produced decades ago, the artists’ images are still relevant, personal and strikingly relatable. Knowing that these works are celebrated by audiences both outside and within our communities is another important part of why art is so important to our cultural identity.
The beautiful blue print Two Men Picking Seagull Eggs by Lucassie Echalook is one of my personal favourites from the collection. As someone who harvests seagull eggs myself, the absolutely murderous look in the birds eyes gives me goosebumps. It’s a feeling you can only understand if you have come face to face with a determined and vicious avian foe. The teamwork captured in the print is also spot on: one person can collect the goods while the other distracts and defends from an aerial attack.
Yet I found Jobie Ohaituk’s work to be the most unique of this collection. It’s fascinating to me that trees are so prominently featured in his pieces, considering their absence so far North. His animals are whimsical, with soft curves and expressive eyes.
With each season represented in the catalogue, it’s clear that the artists’ lives were still heavily influenced by traditional practices. The organic, deliberate lines used in the drawing of flora—the vines and leaves and berries—in works like Blueberries in Inoucdjouac by Inukpuk gives these prints a realistic feel while maintaining the stylistic signature of Inuit printmaking.
The scenes depicted are so down to earth, so true to life. There is a deep sense of humility and honesty in each image. The artists were drawing what they knew and what they lived day-to-day, despite the rapidly changing world around them. The prevalence of bows and harpoons—still featured heavily across many of the pieces when guns were readily accessible—is especially powerful as much had changed for Inuit by that point and yet much still remained. As we continue to work to protect ourselves and maintain our traditions through the overwhelming crush of globalization and colonization, this unique collection of prints reminds us of the unparalleled capacity of art to preserve our culture and identity.
Together, the works within this catalogue are an impressive nod to the times in which they were produced—both maintaining a strong connection to the past while providing an intimate glimpse into what was then the present day. Now, more than four decades after they were produced, they continue to stand as an important reminder that our history is our own to document, through whatever means available.
This Community Spotlight first appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of the Inuit Art Quarterly.