The arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company paired with harsh government policies forced traumatic shifts to the Inuit way of life. This happened during the twentieth century in the Canadian Arctic where families went from living on the land and hunting for their food to living in settlements and their cultural expression harshly controlled.
The formerly independent Inuit people were pushed to depend on store-bought food and items and eventually the state. However, even during these challenging times of cultural disruption, Inuit artists found a way to preserve intergenerational knowledge.
The History of Early Inuit Printed Textiles
Legends, the spirit world, and oral histories, all were lived on through expressing in their artworks otherwise discouraged from practicing in their communities. Now, culture and memories can be accessed through sculpture, and graphic print, and textile arts.
The Introduction of Printmaking
In the 1950s most Inuit families were no longer able to sustain themselves through fur-trading. In 1957, printmaking was introduced to the community as part of a government program to encourage handicraft production.
The federal government hired James Houston the Area Administrator for South Baffin Island to encourage the production of carving and crafts in the North as well as promote Inuit art in the South. He was also an artist and writer and worked with Osuitok Ipeelee and Kananginak Pootoogook. Together, they started experimenting with fabric and paper printing using linoleum floor tiles cut with simple designs.
The West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative
The artworks produced by Houston, Ipeelee, and Pootoogook were released to the public at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in February 1960. It proved to be quite sensational that the artists at Cape Dorset incorporated a co-operative association called the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative (WBEC). It has continued to operate until this day, and co-operatives such as these turned out to be important economic players in Canada’s Northern economy.
Artists at WBEC made drawings bought by the Co-op, and the printer then interpreted the artists’ ideas to create prints. In fabric printing, printers selected motifs from drawings and other prints. With these, they are interpreted into a design of duplicated motifs or sets of motifs to be produced. Printers and their advisers decide which drawings to make into prints as well as the process of producing them.
The Rise of Inuit Designs
Soon, Kinngait fabric designs were licensed out to companies and designers for various products such as in fashion. In 1970, WBEC manager Terry Ryan asked Toronto-based textile print specialist, Doug Mantegna, to assess whether large-scale fabric printing in Kinngait was viable. However, Mantegna found that it is unsustainable to bring the chemicals, logistics, as well as cost made printing up North.
Eventually, Mantegna and Robert Eaton started a company called Inunoo.
“Of the Inuit People”
This implies the term “Of The Inuit People.” And true enough, the colorful designs on Inunoo’s product line are all styled from original drawings created by Inuit artists.
Inunoo reproduced actual designs on new fabrics for a line of scarves, men’s shirts, and many more over the years. Mantegna takes inspiration from a particular drawing. He extracts and translates elements to create new designs which were approved by the Co-op and the artist or their estate before being put into production.
The project in Kinngait has generated jobs and income for artists and allowed them direct control over the products during the years of the textile printing initiative. The nature of the textiles including the way they were marketed resulted in the product being incompatible with production in Kinngait, leading to its evolution toward the textiles now produced through Inunoo.