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About Inuit Art

The Inuit have lived for thousands of years in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. Their survival as a people depended on their ability to master the elements and adapt to their environment. One of their most remarkable traits is the innate ability to fashion tools and objects out of the raw materials found in the North such as stone, bone, and ivory.

Despite the fact that archaeological digs have yielded sculptures dating back thousands of years, Inuit art as we know it today only dates back to the turn of the century. The Inuit were until fairly recently a nomadic people who followed the caribou herds about the tundra in order to survive. As nomads they were seldom in one place long enough to produce works of art on any great scale. However, in recent years they have settled into permanent communities. Staying in one place long enough to work on more ambitious projects and the ability to sell their works of art has afforded the Inuit with a significant source of revenue.


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Traditionally, the early works of Inuit art were fashioned out of relatively soft materials such as whalebone, caribou antler or ivory. In recent times, with the availability of steel tools, stone has become the material of choice in that the artist is no longer restricted by the smaller size and shape of the antler or bone. The Canadian north (map of Canada's north) is vast and very rich in minerals and the stone varies tremendously from one community to the next. Despite the fact that most people think Inuit sculptures are carved from soapstone, most are actually carved in serpentine. There are also sculptures in basalt, marble, quartz, pyroxine, etc. depending on the community of origin. Because the type of stone used is a function of where the sculpture was made, there is not one stone which is more valuable than another. In Cape Dorset for example, the stone used is a beautiful dark green serpentine, but the local artists occasionally use a white marble which is also available locally. Relatively few artists use the local marble however in that it is a much harder stone to carve and takes a greater toll on their tools.

Subject matter also varies tremendously from one community to the next, but Inuit art is primarily an art of observation, with animals, hunting scenes, and people being the most recurring themes. There are also very significant stylistic differences which can be observed in the art of different regions. Styles tend to range from minimalism at one end of the spectrum to very high realism at the other.
The Inuit are also famous for their works of graphic art. The first series of limited edition graphics was put out by the artists of Cape Dorset in 1959. Other communities began to follow soon after, and now the communities of Pangnirtung, Povurnituq, Baker Lake and Holman Island are also well known for their prints.

Inuit prints are produced in a variety of media with the most common being either lithographs or stonecuts. Stonecuts are quite unique to the Inuit in that the standard lithographic stone is carved out into a bas relief image of the design to be printed. Often the stonecuts are augmented with stencils to apply subtle colours to the prints. In fact it is not uncommon for two prints of the same image to be subtly different in that this is still a very much a "hands on" process as opposed to some of the mass produced graphics that are common today.

Most Inuit prints are limited to edition sizes of fifty copies. Occasionally there are images produced in editions of one hundred, but again, fifty is the norm. Over the years there have been a number of prints with edition sizes of less than fifty which were the result of technical problems during the printing run. These prints are often quite valuable due to their rarity.

Inuit graphics are still quite reasonably priced ranging from $300.00 - $800.00 Canadian. Several early prints are now selling for more than $10,000.00, but many spectacular prints from the early 1960’s sell for under $1,000.00.

 
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