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Inside and Outside Contemporary Inuit Art

Pudlo Pudlat’s block print of a musk-ox in the snow seems at first glance to depict a humorous creature enjoying a playful constitutional on a snowy day. The giant creature appears to skid across the Arctic landscape on ridiculously small feet with splayed toes, entirely out of proportion with the heavy, shaggy pelt and head of the musk-ox. Nevertheless, the musk-ox exerts a riveting effect on its viewers, transforming them into affectionate admirers even without their knowing. The print does not so much grow on its audience as grapple them into camaraderie, inviting them into not merely a scene of humor but more importantly, a sense of the Arctic and its cultures full of life, animation, and humanity.

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Pudlat Pudlo (Inuit, 1916-1992), block print (stone cut and stencil) on paper, titled, "Musk Ox on Sea Ice," no 37/50, dated Dorset, 1980. Signed by artist in bottom right. Dimensions are: sight size 31 inches wide X 19 inches tall, frame measures 36 1/4 inches wide X 24 1/8 inches tall. 

Pudlo Pudlat (Inuit, 1916-1992) was well known for his “humorous combinations of fantasy and reality,”[1]  which enabled him to depict the “transition from traditional nomadic Inuit lifestyles to modern technologies”[2] in a way that appealed across cultures and geographies. One of several Inuit artists based out of Cape Dorset, Pudlat lived in a time of expansive change for the Canadian political machine and its relations with the First Peoples living within its sovereign territory. Art historian Jean Blodgett observes how Pudlo Pudlat, as one of the few Inuit artists who regularly “made use of imported subjects” such as airplanes, helicopters, and snowmobiles, acknowledges the new “northern reality” of his lifetime, in which the “depictions of traditional activities and scenes are inspired as much by nostalgia and a desire to preserve and document the old ways on the part of the artists as by the pressure exerted on the market by the romanticism of the southern buyer.”[3]

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Lot 166: Pitaloosie Saila (Inuit, b. 1942), lithograph on paper, "Woman of Old," no. 33/50, signed in bottom right, dated Dorset, 1984. The print depicts an Inuit woman in dark clothes against a white background. Dimensions are: sight size 19 inches wide X 25 1/2 inches tall, frame measures 25 1/4 inches wide X 32 3/8 inches tall.

The appeal of representing “the old ways” remained – in fact, remains – two-fold: block prints like the Woman of Old by Pitaloosie Saila, another Cape Dorset artist and Pudlo Pudlat’s niece, depict changing aspects of Inuit culture. The Woman of Old wears the traditional woman’s parka, her head enveloped in the giant amautiit, or hood, that was a mark of femininity in traditional Inuit culture.[4] Speaking of her work, Pitaloosie Saila observes that “The drawings I do are my heritage to my children, my grandchildren and future generations. I draw what I have seen or heard; I draw about my life […] so the Inuit traditional way of life can be preserved on paper.”[5] While her words do evoke the nostalgia observed by Blodgett, they also testify to the personal interest of many Inuit artists to maintain their culture in the face of Canadian sovereignty and increasing interaction with the cities beyond the Arctic. At the same time, Minnie Aodla Freeman, writing on female contemporary Inuit artists, argues that no “other culture […] has adopted so suddenly to another, surviving all its shortcomings, its bad influences, and the misplaced good intentions of well-meaning people.”[6]  

Through humor and self-awareness, representations of the traditional and the quotidian, the Inuit artists in this sale demonstrate the continuing resilience of Inuit culture and its ability to remain tangibly its own despite being able to adapt to changing cultural and political climates. Beyond their visual appeal, this deeper significance makes the art of Pudlo Pudlat, Pitaloosie Saila, and Juanisialuk Irqumia a dynamic addition to any fine art collection.

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Lot 167: Juanisialuk Irqumia (Inuit, 1893 - 1976), block print on paper depicting a polar bear hunt, 1968. Dated, numbered 5 of 15 examples and signed in graphite in the margin. Dimensions are: 26 inches tall X 29 inches wide. All measurements are approximate.



[1] “Pudlo Pudlat,” Inuit Art Foundation, accessed September 15, 2019. https://iad.inuitartfoundation.org/artist/Pudlo-Pudlat/bio-citations

[2] Ibid

[3] Jean Blodgett, Grasp Tight the Old Ways: Selections from the Klamer Family Collection of Inuit Art (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 1983), 136.

[4] Pitaloosie Saila, “What I remember,” Leroux et al, ed., Inuit Women Artists (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1994), 162.

[5] Saila, “What I remember,” Inuit Women Artists, 165.

[6] Minnie Aodla Freeman, “Foreword,” in Leroux et al, ed., Inuit Women Artists (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1994), 14.


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About the Author

Katharina Biermann joined Oakridge Auction Gallery in the beginning of 2019, having completed her Master of Letters at the University of Glasgow in the History of Art with a specialization in Dress and Textile Histories. Ms. Biermann developed hands-on expertise of European arts and culture while interning in internationally renowned institutions including the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY. She remains particularly interested in medieval and 19th-20th century visual and material culture.


Katharina Biermann

Mon, Oct 14, 2019 10:26 AM

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