What Makes Nunatsiavut Art Unique?
Posted 30 September 2015, 8:18 pm NDT
Growing up Heather Igloliorte was surrounded by Inuit artist and crafts people. She fondly recalls that her grandmother was a well-known seamstress, her aunt made dolls, her father drew and her brothers practiced a variety of arts. She just assumed that her family, like those around them, was part of the long tradition of Inuit artists from Nunatsiavut.

She was especially shocked to discover, upon reaching graduate school to study Canada's Inuit Art Movement, that Nunatsiavut artists and crafts people were almost entirely left out.


"I couldn't believe it, I felt like we were left out of something to which we obviously belonged," explains Igloliorte, who now works as an assistant professor of Aboriginal art history at Concordia University in Montreal.

When Labrador joined Canada along with Newfoundland in 1949 the provincial government opted out of recognizing any Aboriginal peoples. At the same time in 1949 prolific artist James Houston ignited the contemporary Inuit Art Movement by bringing print making and carving workshops to the Arctic, uniting far flung artists across the vast North. Federal funding would galvanize the rapidly growing Inuit Art Movement North of 60. The Inuit Art Council became the standard in Inuit art, with the famous Igloo tag adorning the works marking them as being authentically Inuit.

Without provincial recognition the federal government would not consider Nunatsiavut to be an Inuit homeland. Artists in Nunatsiavut were denied the Igloo tag and the federal funds that came with it because they were not considered Inuit; something anyone who has spent time in the area can attest is categorically untrue. It has only been within the last twenty years that Nunatsiavut artists have been able to join in with their Inuit counterparts across the North.

It's not that the federal funding was necessary to make art, the funding created connectivity linking Inuit artist across the vast Arctic with each other and Southern art dealers and museums. Artists could cross-pollinate ideas and techniques and develop a look and feel that went beyond individual craftspeople.

However, Igloliorte says being left out of the Igloo is not as bad as it sounds. Without having to please Southern markets, Nunatsiavut artists forged their own trail maintaining the traditional variety of crafts and art work maintained by Inuit since time immemorial.


"Having been left out of modern and contemporary Inuit art up until now hasn't always been that bad, it's resulted in us having an interesting trajectory of art that's outside of the art market that actually makes it interesting in a number of ways," explains Igloliorte. "For example Labrador Inuit practice so many different kinds of works, because we're outside of that Inuit art market which is largely, even now, just sculptures, prints and drawings, we're outside of that. Inuit inside of Labrador do not just stick to one kind of a medium, people are working all across many diverse area."

Artists and crafts people here maintain a vibrant and varied history, to this day, of working in fabrics like duffle, seal skin, dickies, jewelry and even adding the Inuit touch on materials considered not to be "traditional" in other Inuit territories.

According to Igloliorte this variety and unique history puts Nunatsiavut at an advantage. "It's great because we're coming in at a time when the whole Inuit art world is exploding and it's almost like we're a head of the game," says Igloliorte with confidence.

Being the most southern Inuit territory Nunatsiavut artists have always had access to materials associated more with southern Canada. "We have artists that carve in wood and other media which is totally distinct," describes Igloliorte quickly with the pace of someone that has had to explain this a thousand times. "It was actually something that was discouraged in other parts of the Arctic by Southern arts administrators who thought it would make it seem like it wasn't 'authentic' Inuit art, and so in Labrador it is an indigenous material for us and so it is authentic for us to carve in wood.


We also have a very strong basket making tradition which you don't see the same amount in other places across the Arctic and we have a lot of artists that work in media that's not typical to Inuit art."

Even though Nunatsiavut artists and crafts makers didn't come together as a territory they none the less pursued the trade on their own in isolated pockets, passing down their skills generation to generation.

Igloliorte says senior artist like Garmel Rich in Rigolet, John Terriak in Nain, Dinah Andersen and others have blazed a trail for an up and coming generation of young Inuit artists and crafts people.

Inez Shiwak of Rigolet is one of those artists. She is a seal skin craft producer, who learned to work with the material from her mother, who in turn learned the skill from her mother.

She is proud of the fact that this skill has been passed down for generations in her family. "As a new generation comes up there's different ideas and they're adapting to different ways of making crafts. I know my grandmother she made crafts that they needed as a necessity. They needed boots so she made boots. When my mom was doing it it was more to sell to get it out in to the market people wanting to buy, says Shiwak. "Now with my generation coming up we're making crafts that are easier to make, not something that's going to take days and days to make, something like maybe a couple hours and we have it done, ready to sell."


Shiwak says that without the pressure of necessity, say to produce all the clothing needed for an entire family, it allows her to try new things and take new chances. She makes everything from sealskin iPad cases dyed to look like the Labrador flag, to sealskin bracelets and jewelry.

"It frees you up to bring different ideas into the market," she explains. "It gives you your identity of who you are and where you come from, but it also makes you proud you can produce some sort of craft that maybe your mom can't produce; something that you are known for making."

Shiwak hopes to someday open her own website and sell her wares online fulltime.

Igloliorte says it is just that kind of diversity, ingenuity, and independence that sets Nunatsiavut arts and crafts apart from other Inuit regions.

"We're the next big thing!" Igloliorte exclaims, "Inuit art is just starting to expand and Labrador Inuit artists are already at the forefront of that in every way that I can think of, they're just not recognized yet. In my mind we're what's coming up. We're going to be the next big wave in Inuit art on the market, in scholarship in every day."


An important step in recognition is exposure. Igloliorte says making Nunatsiavut art available online is very important; getting it out there for people around the world to discover. She says it's happening more and more all the time from professional artist pages to Facebook groups.

Nunatsiavut artists have been slowly gaining recognition over the last twenty years, finally being recognized by the Inuit Arts Council, and producing several well-known artists like Gilbert Haye and John Terriak of Nain. Even though their work has been recognized it still seen as coming from individual artists as opposed to a distinct region.

A new generation of Inuit artists making a name for themselves, very well may change that. Carver Billy Gauthier of North West River sold out his first show in Vancouver in an a mere eighteen minutes. His refined style and astounding transformation of his carving medium has set him apart as an artist.

"Labrador artists are finally becoming more recognized now, and people are beginning to realize because we're not high up in the Arctic like others doesn't mean the people are Nunatsiavut are less Inuit," says Gauthier.

"I think of us being almost separated from so many of the other artists in the High Arctic, and I think that when you separate a bunch of creative people you're not, and I don't want to say they were taking others ideas, but they weren't feeding off each other the ways the others could." Gauthier says it was being separated that allowed creativity to flourish independently.


"[The Arctic] was more unified, whereas here people are usually just carving by themselves in a small workshop, so I guess it does force you to be more creative in a different way. Without really knowing, and probably not caring what is being sold down South, people here are basically carving what they do enjoy carving rather than just for a pay cheque, and it's led to some really beautiful and unique stuff, that is finally getting noticed."

Now that the world is taking greater note of Nunatsiavut art Igloliorte says that now is the time to come together as a region, to show that it is not just a hand full of individuals but something larger.

"The idea of coming together to be represented as a group is really important because it demonstrates that not only is there a hand full of individuals in the territory making art, but there are actually, dozens, maybe hundreds of Inuit artists in Labrador," explains Igloliorte. "There are so many people that it really does challenge the idea that there isn't really any art in our territory."


Igloliorte is helping to bring together those artists and crafts makers this month for the SakKijâjuk: Inuit Fine Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut Exhibition, where Nunatsiavut artists and crafts people of all stripes can come together to show off their work as whole. The exhibition will take place at the Kinsmen Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay from November 19th to 22nd. Thirty to forty of the works from the exhibition will then be showcased provincially at the Rooms in St.-John's, Newfoundland. SakKijâjuk will be the first-ever nationally touring exhibition of Labrador Inuit fine art and craft.

"I think some of the most interesting, and beautiful and challenging art is coming out from Labrador Inuit artists," exclaims Igloliorte." I'm excited to be that next wave."

For more information on SakKijâjuk: Inuit Fine Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut Exhibition please visit


By Ossie Michelin