The following information was reproduced by permission of The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Department Canada.

Prehistoric Arctic Art

Canada's Arctic has been inhabited by humans for at least 4000 years. The first people currently known to have produced a significant amount of figurative art belonged to the Dorset culture (c. 600B.C. - 1000A.D.). The objects they carved from bone, ivory and wood included birds, bears and other land and sea animals, human figures, masks and maskettes, and face clusters. It is believed that these works had a definite magic or religious intent, and that they were worn as amulets or used in shamanic rituals.

The people of the Thule culture (ancestors of today's Inuit) migrated from northern Alaska around 1000A.D. and drove or wiped out the earlier Dorset inhabitants. Thule art was based on Alaskan prototypes; it included some human and animal figures, but consisted primarily of the graphic embellishment of utilitarian objects such as combs, needle cases, harpoon toggles and gaming pieces. The decorative or figurative incised markings on these objects do not seem to have had religious significance.



Inuit Sculpture in Recent Times

A colder climate disrupted the Thule culture in the 16th century, about the same time as contact with the white man began. Inuit began to barter with whalers, missionaries and other foreigners. Carvings of animals, as well as replicas of tools and western-style objects, most often fashioned from ivory, became common trade goods. The first few centuries of European contact are usually referred to as the Historic Period.

The contemporary period of Inuit art began in the late 1940's. When the federal government recognized the potential economic benefit to the Inuit, it actively encouraged the development and promotion of Inuit sculpture, greatly assisted by the Hudson's Bay Company and the Handicrafts Guild. Inuit-owned cooperatives were established in the 1950's and 60's in most Arctic communities, as well as art marketing agencies in southern Canada. As well as providing much needed income in isolated Arctic villages, Inuit sculpture has achieved an international reputation as a major contemporary art form.


Look North Arctic Arts

Inuit Sculptures and Prints

Imagery and Styles

At first glance, Inuit sculpture may seem to be a relatively homogeneous art form but, in fact, its subject matter and styles are richly varied. The Inuit population (about 25,000) is widely distributed across Canada's north, so that each of the 30 or so art-producing communities has developed its own favorite subjects and distinctive sculptural style.

The themes of Arctic wildlife, and traditional Inuit hunting and family scenes are still popular, but spirit figures, and mythological and shamanic images also abound. Styles, too, range from strict naturalism or decorative stylization to minimal abstraction, and from brutal expressionism to whimsical surrealism. The personal styles of individual artists are readily identifiable by those who take time to look more closely.


Regional Styles

With the exception of Baker Lake, the major Inuit sculpture producing settlements, mostly ranging in population from a few hundred to 1000 people, dot the Arctic coastline. While each community has its own style, certain regional characteristics are apparent.

The sculpture of Arctic Quebec (Nouveau-Quebec; Nunavik) tends to be naturalistic, and is often narrative in nature. Animals and realistic hunting scenes, as well as legends and stories, are favoured subjects. The predominantly grey stones are generally blackened and polished, then incised.

Artists from southern Baffin Island work in a variety of stones types. These sculptors seem to view the stone as a challenge, working against it and fashioning intricate, delicate and dramatic pieces with flair. Elegant or humorous animals are popular subjects.

The sculpture of the Central Arctic varies from a kind of expressive realism to surrealism, with a focus on spiritual or shamanic themes. Facial features are often exaggerated, with intricate, inlaid details. Stone and whalebone are popular.

The Keewatin stones are grey to black in color and hard. Artists use this "stoneness" as an expressive element in their work. Details are few, and many works are not highly polished. Human subjects, especially family scenes, predominate.

The sculpture from other areas of Canada's Arctic is perhaps not quite so well known. Naturalistic animal and hunting themes predominate in the art from northern Baffin Island, the Western Arctic and Labrador.









Sanikiliaq / Kuujjuaraapik / Inukjuak / Povungnituk / Akulivik

Carvings from Sanikiluaq, situated in the Belcher Islands in Hudson Bay, are very popular with both art collectors and tourists. Human subjects and occasional camp scenes are produced, but it is the representations of the Arctic wildlife of the islands, particularly birds and marine mammals, that have made art of this community so eagerly sought after. Sanikiluaq carvings are generally naturalistic in style, although they can be somewhat stylized, sharp-edged and angular in appearance. These elegant and polished works are often incised with minute detail. They also derive much of their popularity from the argillite stone which ranges from light green to almost black, often has a distinctive striped grain, and takes a beautiful polish.

Kuujjuaraapik (formerly Great Whale River; Poste-de-laBaleine)is just across the water from Sanikiliaq, in Arctic Quebec. Many families have members in each community, and several artists have moved back and forth, so it is not surprising that the carving styles are quite similar. There is also some influence from Inukjuak to the north. Subject matter includes wildlife, but also extends to camp and family life, with a certain amount of fantasy imagery as well. Artists use the Sanikiluaq stone when it is available, but generally make do with grey Arctic Quebec varieties.

The sculpture of Inukjuak (formerly Port Harrison; Inoucdjouac) is strongly realistic, rather calm and somewhat static. Volumes tend to be broad and rounded, and there are few negative spaces carved from the stone. Domestic scenes, especially charming vignettes of mothers and children, and hunting images, are favourite subjects. Also popular are birds, fish, bears and other animals, naturalistically carved and incised. Mythological imagery is rare. Most early pieces were carved in a rich green mottled stone that is still being quarried today. Carvings in grey stone, often darkened and incised, are also common. Ivory inlays or additions are also no longer as frequently used as they once were.

Povungnituk sculpture, too, is realistic, with emphasis on naturalistic detail. Unlike Inukjuak art, however, it is more robust and vigorous, and can be rather earthy. Action-filled hunting scenes are common - in fact the subject matter as well as the style seem more masculine than in Inukjuak. Animal subjects are also popular. As in much of Arctic Quebec, careful incising of hair, feathers or facial features on the polished and darkened stone gives the work a certain graphic quality. Many Povungnituk artists have moved to the community of Akulivik (formerly Cape Smith), therefore the sculptural styles of these two communities are similar.











Salluit / Ivujivik / Kangirsuk

In Salluit (formerly Sugluk; Saglouc) and Ivujivik, as in Inukjuak, human figures have been the most popular subjects, either men hunting or women involved in domestic chores. In the 1950's, a naive realistic style developed that was almost "Romanesque" in its monumental static quality: superficial folds of drapery over large , bulky bodies, and small delicate heads and faces carved in the coarse grey local stone. While some sculptures recall the earlier forms, many recent works are closer in style to the more southern Arctic Quebec settlements. Stone types and subject matter are more varied as well.

The sculpture of Kangirsuk (formerly Payne Bay; Bellin) has a definite folk art quality to it. Quirky and even crude in subject and conception, its appeal lies chiefly in its quaint charm rather than technical virtuosity. Portions of the dull grey stone are often roughly blackened, adding to the quaint effect.



Cape Dorset/Lake Harbour

Cape Dorset is probably the most famous art-producing community in Canada's north. With so many talented sculptors, there is bound to be a wide range of styles; however, a few generalizations can be made. The Cape Dorset sculptural stlye is rooted in a love of naturalism and an interest in both wildlife and the spirit world, but has incorporated a love of flamboyant, the dramatic and the decorative. Sculptures exhibit a strongly stylized or elegant naturalism, and are generally highly finished. One senses a certain self-consciousness on the part of the artists, as well as a desire to manipulate the material to a high degree. The stones, which may range from many beautiful shades of green, almost semi-precious varieties, to white dolomite and other types as well, are often fashioned into almost impossibly thin shapes or delicately balanced works. Favourite subjects include animals and mythological creatures. The scale of these works is often as dramatic as their style.

Lake Harbour, like Cape Dorset, is famous for its beautiful stone. Greens, especially a marvelous apple-green, and cream-coloured shades are particularly highly prized. Lake Harbour sculptors favour a highly representational style; a great variety of animal subjects are naturalistically and elegantly rendered, with smooth, flowing curves and high polish.




Iqaluit / Pangnirtung / Broughton Island

Because it is the administrative centre of the eastern Northwest Territories. Iqaluit (formerly Frobisher Bay) has had to deal with considerable outside influences. It is also a magnet for Inuit from throughout the Baffin region. Thus its style is not as homogeneous as that of other communities. However, it does share with its neighboring settlements a taste for the elegant and flamboyant representation of Arctic wildlife. Animals, particularly bears, caribou and musk-oxen, are depicted realistically, but often in unusual or heroic poses, or with exaggerated proportions.

Pangnirtung sculpture, like that of Iqualuit, exhibits a certain heroic realism in its animal and human subjects. Stone is the most widely used material but whalebone is also popular; many Pangnirtung artists enjoy working on a large scale in their portrayals of dramatic and emotionally charged shamanic or mythological images. The art of Broughtin Island is similar to that of Pangnirtung; many families have moved back and forth between the two communities. Sculptors utilize whalebone, light green and occasionally dark green to black stones.

Clyde River / Igloolik / Hall Beach

Clyde River carvers work with a supply of light green stone from the Mary River area of northern Baffin Island. The predominant medium, however, is old whalebone found along beaches in the area. In fact, this community is now the center of whalebone carving in the Arctic. Although some sculptures are straightforward and representational depictions of animals, humans and simple hunting scenes, one trait that characterizes the work from Clyde River is the sense of humour and whimsy that results in images such as dancing and waving walruses. The stone sculptures generally have soft, undulating outlines and are highly finished. Whale vertebrae carved with Janus-faces are an example of the use artists make of natural shapes.

Igloolik sculpture has much in common stylistically with that of Pangnirtung in terms of scale, subject matter and aesthetics. The drama of the hunt and the emotional intensity of mythological subjects are depicted in large, strongly realistic works. Igloolik stone is mostly dull grey; naturalistic details are vigorously carved but not polished. Light green stone is also imported from the Mary River deposit on Baffin Island. The nearby community of Hall Beach produces stone sculptures which often resemble the powerful sculptures of Igloolik, but sometimes the soft-edged carvings of Clyde River and Pond Inlet.



Taloyoak / Gjoa Haven / Pelly Bay / Repulse Bay

Talyoak first became famous for its whalebone sculptures which were large and rather fantastic in conception. The community style was dominated quickly by the work of one man, Karoo Ashevak, whose combination of the surreal and whimsical produced powerfully haunting, yet amusing masterpieces. Some aspects of his style have been appropriated by other artists, but the switch to stone as the main carving material and the rise of new talents have led to more varied approaches. Taloyoak sculpture is still noteworthy, however, for its mixture of the profoundly spiritual and the eccentrically amusing.

The sculpture of Gjoa Haven was to a certain extent influenced by the Taloyoak style. There is a similar tendency toward distortion and expressionism in human and spirit faces and bodies, also an interest in combining the different media of stone, whalebone, ivory, and musk-ox horn. Today, however, it is Gjoa Haven artists who stylistically dominate the art of the Central Arctic. For some time, Gjoa Haven sculptors worked with an imported translucent green stone but they now carve in the harder dark green and black stone found some distance away.

Pelly Bay is probably best known for its ivory miniatures which were for many years encouraged by local missionaries. Small delicate works in ivory and antler, as well as stone, are still produced today.

The sculpture of Repulse Bay harkens back in some respects to the models and miniatures made for missionaries and whalers in the Historic Period. Ivory is still a popular medium, by itself or in conjunction with stone or antler, and the art of the miniature is still popular, as it is in Pelly Bay. Animals or genre scenes, with an unpretentious folk art flavour, are the most common subjects.









Baker Lake / Arviat / Rankin Inlet

Baker Lake is the only inland community in Canada's Arctic. It is famous for its large, heavy and dynamic carvings of hunters and animals, fashioned from the hard Keewatin stone. Although essentially realistic in conception, these works are not detailed but are more roughly conceived in broad curves and large masses with few fine details. The musk-ox is a favourite subject, especially among male carvers who are also hunters. Female artists are more likely to produce smaller, more delicate sentimental depictions of mothers and children. Scenes of animal-human transformations are also common in Baker Lake sculpture, as they are in the prints made in this community.

The stone sculpture of Arviat (formerly Eskimo Point) is probably the least naturalistic of all Inuit art, with little surface elegance or detail. While work from this community may appear crude to some, it has considerable emotional power. As the local steatite is quite hard, most artists employ considerable economy of line. By far the most common subjects are family or maternal scenes. In contrast, antler carvings from this community are whimsical, portraying birds and other animals, games and hunting scenes. Like many works in antler from other Inuit communities, they have great folk art appeal.

Rankin Inlet artists work in the hard grey to black Keewatin stone, or in ivory. Like Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet is a regional centre and its art is varied. Several styles of sculpture exist, ranging from rough, simple delineation of form to abstraction and stylization, to strict naturalism.





Kugluktuk / Holman

Kugluktuk is probably best known for its small composite depictions of traditional camp life. These genre scenes are fashioned from various types of stone and incorporate wood, copper, whalebone and antler. Often featuring igloos with detachable tops, they are descriptive and somewhat static in nature. Portayals of single animals, birds and human figures are also common.

The artists of Holman, like those of Clyde River, create animals and descriptive hunting scenes from whalebone. Recently, musk-ox horn has become a popular carving material. Its sweeping curves are readily transformed into elegant long-necked geese.


Materials and Methods

Stone has replaced ivory as the most popular carving material in contemporary Inuit art. This has led not only to a greater variety of colors and forms, but also to the large size of many modern Inuit sculptures. Ancient weathered whalebone is another popular carving material, but international restrictions on its use and that of ivory have resulted in a decline in their use. Caribou antler and musk-ox horn are also carved when available. Many works combine two or more of these materials; for example. antler or ivory is often used as inlay in stone sculptures.

Although the generic term "soapstone" is commonly used, this is a bit misleading. Soapstone, a soft talc steatite, is not used nearly as much as the harder serpentine, serpentinite, siltstone, argillite, dolomite, quartz, and other types. Stone is the most versatile carving material because it can be worked to almost any size and shape. Its colours range from rather dull grey to luscious, almost semi-precious greens, whites, blue-greens, blacks, etc. Ivory, whalebone, antler and horns are more restrictive, but Inuit sculptors have nevertheless managed to take advantage of their naturally occurring shapes to produce a seemingly endless variety of forms and subjects.

Materials are often in short supply, and artists must travel great distances overland or by boat to quarry quantities of good quality stone. Once materials are obtained, carving proceeds in a fairly straightforward manner. The necessary skills, perfected in the fashioning of traditional implements, have been passed down through generations of Inuit. Most sculptures are still produced with hand tools, although a growing number of artists use small power tools as well. Saws, axes and adzes, hammers and chisels are used for the initial roughing out stages of a carving. Files, rasps and, finally, steel wool and sandpaper are utilized for fine work and finishing. Penknives or nails may be used for detailed incising.








Given the fact that Inuit sculptures are highly prized as Canadian souvenirs and as art objects, it is unfortunately inevitable that mass-produced reproductions and imitations have proliferated. These items, made of plastic, ceramic or "cast stone," sometimes tempt the uninformed consumer by their lower price. These imitations generally have no investment or aesthetic value whatsoever, and are in no way endorsed by the Canadian government or the Inuit of Canada. In fact, they tend to lower the image and reduce the sales of genuine Inuit sculpture, thus depriving Inuit artists of income.

To protect the consumer and Inuit carvers, the Canadian government has registered the symbol of the igloo as a trademark. Sculptures bearing this "igloo tag" or sticker are certified to be handmade by Inuit.

Inuit carvers often (but not always) incise the bottoms of their works with their signatures in Roman letters or syllabics. Some sculptures may also have a "disc number" inscribed on the bottom. These numbers, prefixed by an "E" or "W", are another kind of signature.