Thursday, May 7, 2020


Kiakshuk (1886 - 1966) was born into a traditional Inuit family on the south coast of Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island), Nunavut. He was noted for his knowledge of traditional tales and songs, and for his own accounts of old-style hunting and fishing in the Arctic. He was interviewed several times by anthropologists and documentary filmmakers.

In the 1950s the Canadian government got to wondering what Inuit people had to offer the outside world, and some genius realized that their traditional art might be highly marketable. In 1960 the West Baffin Eskimo Co-operative board hired an artist from Ontario, Terrence Ryan, to come manage their printmaking studio and help market its products. He fell in love with the local art and helped make the studio into a huge success. (Kikqavik and the Hunter)

Among the first artists to work in the new studio was Kiakshuk.

He had no prior experience with visual art but as you can see from these works he had an immediate feel for the medium of black and white prints. His deep knowledge of Arctic life and the shamanistic tradition infuses these with a spirit very strange to the rest of us. This one is titled Spirits.

One of the other Inuit elders at Cape Dorset, a woman named Pitseolak Ashoona, said that Kiakshuk
did real Eskimo drawings. . . . He did it because he grew up that way, and I really like the way he put the old Eskimo life on paper. I used to see Kiakshuk putting the shamans and spirits into his work on paper.

There is no shying away from the brutality of hunting as a way of life.

Or from the savagery of wild animals; this is an owl attacking a snow goose.

You can still buy one of these with Kiakshuk's mark for as little as $1,000, should you want a real evocation of the hunter-gatherer past to hang on your wall. I think they're amazing.


Anonymous said...

They are wonderful.

G. Verloren said...

I'm struck by how similar these look to certain kinds of Japanese art (and by extension Chinese art before that) - particularly the red signatures or "seals".

I can only assume this must reflect a direct modern influence of some kind - the time frames involved appear not to remotely match up for it to have been something brought over from Asia by the ancestors of the Inuits.(Coincidental convergent evolution of the artforms is also possible, but seems staggeringly less likely.)

Mary Rose said...

@G -

James Houston, the administrator of the Baffin Island region who taught printmaking to the Inuit in the 1950s, made a trip to Japan to study with Japanese artists like Uni'chi Hiratsuka and the rest of the creative prints school. He was the one who suggested using the red seal, adapting it for Inuit syllabics. Many of Kiakshuk's prints, and those of his contemporaries, are inspired by Japanese woodblock prints like Hiratsuka.

G. Verloren said...

@Mary Rose

Ahh, thank you for the good info! I figured it had to be something along those lines.